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Dog Days

The first wave of mediocrity is already crashing upon the summer movie shores

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Thrillers with one-word titles appear to be the order of the day: Enigma, Enough, Insomnia, Unfaithful. The downright prolix title of The Sum of All Fears may break the trend, but these four films still present a cross-section of current movies, staking out familiar territory from the commonplace to the ordinary and back again.

Enigma is a Michael Apted film, with a script by Tom Stoppard, based on the best-selling novel about British codebreakers working against the Nazis in World War II. Others appreciate Stoppard's work in film more than I do. His script for Fassbinder's Despair (1978) captured little of the mordant wit of the Nabokov novel it was based on, and Shakespeare in Love was little more than an excruciating and vapid effort to reclaim Shakespeare for heterosexuality. Enigma plays the same game, heterosexualizing historically gay phenomena with the galumphing élan of A Beautiful Mind: Writing the gay computer scientist Alan Turing out of the history of Bletchley Park is a worse offense than anything Ron Howard could cook up. But what's striking about Stoppard's script here is its lack of even a pretense of verbal agility. After Shakespeare in Love, with its insipid, compulsive, and half-baked wordplay, this lack comes as something of a relief.

Regarding Jennifer Lopez's new vehicle, Enough, it's hard to avoid Stoppardesque or Gene Shalit-like puns on the title: "Enough is Too Much!" Or, "Enough Already!" J Lo--who, according to one reviewer, "rocks"--is Sleeping With the Enemy and must get in touch with her Inner Buttkicker (to adapt a trope from another review) to save herself from her abusive spouse. Whether she does, and what that may mean, could be implied in the movie's theme song, "Alive," a cut from a record titled J to tha L-O! Enough said.

Well, almost enough. It's worth noting another element of nauseous synergy at work here: Enough, like Engima, is "A Michael Apted Film." Like Enigma it has a script by a formerly distinguished writer: Nicholas Kazan, who wrote the pellucid, elegant script for Reversal of Fortune. Apted has done a decent thing or two, and he is the director of the wonderful series of documentaries on the British class system made at seven year intervals, 7 Up (1964) through 42 Up (2001). But nobody could mistake either Enigma or Enough for anything but the mediocrities they are, though given the titles one could possibly mistake them for each other.

Still, they have little in common superficially. Enigma tries for the effects of a civilized, old-fashioned thriller, like The Key to Rebecca, with leisurely pacing, jocular comic relief, and prettily Gothic settings. Enough, by contrast, thinks it's way up-to-the-minute, with (to quote the ratings tag in the ads) "Intense Scenes of Domestic Violence," "Some Sensuality," and "Language." But none of these movies features anything like what I think of as language, though they all claim to in exactly this manner, and in Enough it's hard to distinguish "Some Sensuality" from the "Intense Scenes of Domestic Violence." In fact, without the titles you'd never know that Enough and Enigma were products of the same hand. Should we congratulate Apted for his range, or worry about a benumbed quality of impersonality that has perhaps already brought about the Death of the Auteur?

Christopher Nolan is the auteur's death-mask, and Insomnia should silence those who proclaimed him, after Memento, the Future of Movies. (Similarly, Bryan Singer's career post-Usual Suspects has silenced his partisans, who were, correcting for a few years' age difference, the same as Nolan's, since Nolan and Singer might as well be the same non-person.) Insomnia is set in a City that Never Sleeps in Alaska, to which L.A. cop Al Pacino is sent to solve a murder. Why can't the Alaskans solve their own damn murders, you wonder? The answer is only partly to be found in the fact that the movie is a remake of a Norwegian thriller, and the filmmakers needed a place in America where it doesn't get dark. The rest of the answer is to be found, precisely, nowhere.

Unfaithful is also a remake of a European film, Claude Chabrol's great La Femme Infidel (1968), dumbed down and decked out for Richard Gere and Diane Lane. Both these remakes rely heavily for their appearance of originality on their sources and on their viewers' ignorance of those sources, and both substitute for a personal attitude toward their material a series of involuntary tics trying to convulse themselves into the semblance of a style.

So what do these movies tell us about current trends in mainstream American film? Nothing, probably, that we didn't already know. Directors are content to be technicians. Personal style gives way to Industrial Arts. Originality is a myth or a shell game. Actors can still, sometimes, liven things up, as heavy-lidded, pop-eyed Pacino does in Insomnia, or sultry, sulky Diane Lane in Unfaithful, or Dougray Scott, scowling and languishing like a latter-day Dirk Bogarde, in Enigma. What these movies mostly tell us is that summer's coming, and the first wave of lame-brained blockbusters is already past, and all we have to look forward to is the next one. EndBlock

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