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Identity Crisis 

American movies once enthralled the world with their exuberance and clarity. What happened in the 1990s?

Wednesday, Sep 24 1997
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IV. Hollywood's Two Ages of Man
In American movies -- as in malls -- kids rule. In the "All the world's a stage" speech from As You Like It, Shakespeare posited seven ages of man. Hollywood sticks to two: man in his youth, and in his fighting prime. (As a result, 30-ish stars will play male ingenues, and 50-ish stars will play action heroes.) That's due both to our culture's obsession with youth and to our longtime national identity crisis. Legions of movies besides Face/Off have depicted people who get confused about who they are, ranging from last year's Oscar winner The English Patient (the hero forgot he helped the Nazis) to a number of comedies, such as the Steve Martin-Goldie Hawn vehicle HouseSitter, the Dana Carvey vehicle Clean Slate, and the Michael Keaton vehicle Multiplicity. A hero or heroine flailing around for a code of values and core emotions has become a dominant Hollywood motif, reflecting everything from overwork, stress, and proactive drugs to the deterioration of institutions (church, school, family) that used to help the self define itself. Of the farces, only the hit Groundhog Day proved rounded and satisfying; Bill Murray used the curse of continuously reliving the title holiday to fill in the intangibles of his personality. Of the dramas, only the little-seen indie Suture confronted the conundrum of humanhood head-on. The S.F.-based writer/producer/directors, Scott McGehee and David Siegel, a pair of deadpan wiseacres, cast Dennis Haysbert, a solidly built African-American, as a man who is constantly said to look exactly like his half-brother -- played by Michael Harris, a svelte Caucasian. When Harris rigs an accident that results in Haysbert taking on his identity, the casting becomes an avant-garde ploy with punch. It pivots on questions of what constitutes identity -- the internal stuff of life or the external components of race, wealth, and status. By contrast, the campy identity catastrophes in Face/Off amount to Cage/Travolta leering at Travolta/Cage's daughter and bedding down with his wife.

Since Hollywood moviemakers can't imagine what normality means to an individual man or woman, they're completely lost when it comes to concocting plausible scenarios for love and marriage. At the climax of the most acclaimed American comedy of 1996, the saccharine Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise barges into his estranged wife's house and spouts off a speech that's supposed to show he's changed his life -- and she says, "You had me at hello." You had me at hello? That's a line an executive gives a writer at the end of a successful pitch meeting, not one that a wife gives her spouse at their moment of rapprochement.

It's commonplace to say that the sexual revolution killed movie romance. And it's true that to cook up a specific kind of erotic souffle, sex must be delayed for a span that goes beyond contemporary expectations; the art-house success of the uniformly mediocre Jane Austen adaptations depends on their delayed-gratification plots. But the history of film is studded with movies that manage to be frank and funny and swoony, from Trouble in Paradise to Shampoo to Henry & June. Contemporary filmmakers should be figuring out how to create new kinds of comedy from the ways coupling, courtship, and commitment get all mixed up (the way Ron Shelton does in Bull Durham and Tin Cup); instead, they go traditional and end up tying themselves into knots. Last year's likable fizzle One Fine Day tried so hard to express the tensions of single working mothers and every-other-weekend dads (even those who look like Michelle Pfeiffer and George Clooney) that frenzy overtook amorous feeling. When Julia Roberts attempts to undermine a rival by e-mail in My Best Friend's Wedding, or Jennifer Aniston concocts an entire false history (that comes true) in Picture Perfect, the filmmakers spend their time delaying gratification -- sometimes indefinitely. Their movies are all interruptus, no coitus.

While filmmakers celebrate family life, they remain transparently ambivalent about it. Building a home in the movies these days involves some form of emotional extortion, especially in the post-Home Alone kids movies that focus on prepubescents taking charge of their world. You'd think nothing could be more universal than Shakespeare's babe "mewling and puking in the nurse's arms," but in recent family fare infants don't mewl or puke.

Moviemakers are afraid to put anyone aged 6 months to 21 -- including Shakespeare's "whining schoolboy, with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly to school" -- in the position of having to learn anything. In a whole string of '90s teacher films -- Renaissance Man (Danny DeVito vs. raw Army recruits), Dangerous Minds (Michelle Pfeiffer vs. raw Bay Area kids), 187 (Samuel L. Jackson vs. raw New York and L.A. kids), even the disreputable and entertaining The Substitute (Tom Berenger vs. raw Miami kids) -- students can be moved or inspired or, in extreme cases, warred on, but never taught the essentials of mental discipline or critical thinking.

Shakespeare's soldier, "jealous in honor and quick in guard," resonates intermittently today. If in the Reagan-Bush era mainstream film culture was largely about combat heroism, in the Clinton era moviemakers aren't so sure. True Lies adopted the Gulf War strategy -- massive firepower, limited target -- but tried to put a hip spin on it when Jamie Lee Curtis said of Schwarzenegger, "I married Rambo." Courage Under Fire, a teary-eyed 1996 movie about the Gulf War, derives its occasional moments of power from an up-close, non-CNN view of the ground war and a critique of military justice and protocol. By and large, soldiers "full of strange oaths and bearded" have disappeared. The most popular espionage hero appears to be either Harrison Ford's version of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, or Harrison Ford's version of the president in Air Force One. His look of WASP angst seals his image as an all-American paterfamilias -- but it doesn't prevent him from pulling off more preposterous derring-do than Rambo.

About The Author

Michael Sragow

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