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Behind Enemy Lines

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Age regards youth with the same hunger in Venus, a pedestal (or is it a headstone?) for an alarmingly skeletal Peter O’Toole, whose cadences now resemble those of his Lion in Winter co-star Katharine Hepburn. O’Toole was once the most beautiful of actors, and it’s shocking to see him as a near-death version of himself, a matinee idol called Maurice who lived through a succession of women—through the flesh that’s now gray, almost translucent, pulled tightly over his bones. The movie centers on his alternately creepy and moving attraction to Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), the teenage, working-class niece of an old acting chum (Leslie Phillips). He dogs her; he wishes fervently to reach across the chasm that separates them, to fill the vacuum in his soul with her youth. No, he can’t have sex with her; his medication makes him impotent. But he wants to look—and touch. He brings her to the famous sculpture of Venus and explains, “A woman’s body is the most beautiful thing a man will ever see.” And slowly, this ill-mannered, untutored child—whom Maurice now calls “Venus”—begins to understand the depth of his need. It’s “Ewww” and then “Ahhh” and then “Ewww … ”

Directed by Roger Michell from a script by Hanif Kureishi, Venus is a sort of companion piece to the pair’s The Mother, in which an aging widow (Anne Reid) lusts after a studly handyman (Daniel Craig). But Michell’s clammy, clinical gaze worked better in the last film, in which all the characters were vaguely rancid. Here, there’s something unseemly about the way the director rubs our noses in O’Toole’s decrepitude while his camera hugs Whittaker’s bare thighs and shoulders. In this context, even the funny lines—and there are a lot of them, with Phillips and Richard Griffiths as acting colleagues who meet for lunch and comb the obituaries for their friends—seem heavy-spirited. It’s only a surprise when Jessie’s thug boyfriend begins to knock the frail old man around because it’s hard to believe the filmmakers would be that shameless.

But Venus is worth seeing for the scenes between O’Toole and Vanessa Redgrave as the woman he abandoned—the mother of his children. Her anger at Maurice for putting his pleasure first is still there, but you can see in her eyes that she knows he’s dying, and so even her criticisms come out tenderly, less to get a piece of her own back than to let him know she understands the pain he’s feeling now. These are beautiful scenes—a pedestal indeed.

S peaking of not going quietly into that good night: In the sixth Rocky film, Rocky Balboa, old Sylvester Stallone tries to prove he’s still vital by making a movie about old Rocky trying to prove he’s still vital. Stallone might be a pathetic figure, but he sure is cunning when it comes to using that pathos to generate sympathy. Actually, he’s better at it now. The first Rocky worked because the director, John Avildsen, made the hero small in the frame—a shambling stumblebum whose improbable rise never seemed predestined. But when Stallone became a star and took over the Rocky reins, he moved the camera way up close to give himself he-man stature. Stallone’s impossible-to-please father had reportedly criticized his physique in the first film. Thereafter, he was so grotesquely swollen that all you could think was “Who’s puny now, Daddy?”

The camera in Rocky Balboa has been moved back, and once more we’re looking at a sorrowful mutt who never fully takes the space. Adrian is dead but Rocky runs her Italian restaurant, greeting the customers and recounting for them his champion fights, blow by blow: very sad—and realistic, given the second career of so many ex-athletes who open restaurants. Shortly thereafter, realism excuses itself and the 59-year-old Rocky gets a bout in Vegas with the reigning heavyweight champion. There’s another Adrian on the scene, a middle-aged colleen with a half-black child—but they don’t do it. It wouldn’t be fair to the memory of Adrian, especially since Stallone superimposes her head over settings from the first film.

It’s not easy to look at Stallone. Whatever he did to his face is starting to become undone; parts of it are frozen while other parts droop, like the figures in House of Wax when they begin to melt in the climactic fire. He stares into the distance, and we hear Bill Conti’s Rocky theme with piano and strings. We wait, eagerly, for the trumpets to come back. They do, of course, and Rocky Balboa is one cornball go-for-it cliché piled on top of another, complete with the usual life lessons: Nobody’s gonna hit you harder than life. It’s how hard you can be hit that matters.

Does Rocky Balboa deliver? Weirdly enough, it does: I was jumping out of my seat during Rocky’s bout. If you close your eyes and try to halve your IQ—aim for something between a baboon and a lemur—you might even think it’s a masterpiece.

Letters From Iwo Jima
Directed by Clint Eastwood. Warner Bros. R.

Notes on a Scandal
Directed by Richard Eyre. Fox Searchlight. R.

Venus
Directed by Roger Michell. Miramax. R.

Rocky Balboa
Directed by Sylvester Stallone. MGM. PG.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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