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Out of Steam

The Great Depression bequeathed us screwball comedy, a genre beyond the stars’ grasp in this train wreck of a revival.


No laugh track: Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche in Century.  

As play, movie, or musical, Twentieth Century has never failed to delight—at least not until its 21st-century adaptation by Ken Ludwig. Aside from a few lumbering Ludwigisms, it is hard to determine just what Ludwig contributed to the dazzling Ben Hecht–Charles MacArthur original or, more important, why such adapting was deemed necessary in the first place.

Laughs do remain in the Roundabout revival, but they have to struggle past two serious obstacles—the leads: Alec Baldwin as the Machiavellian theatrical impresario Oscar Jaffe, and Anne Heche as his tempestuous leading lady and sparring partner, Lily Garland. Though others have given sterling performances in these roles, the movie’s John Barrymore and Carole Lombard have proved templates for them: Their memories must be successfully resuscitated or brilliantly eclipsed if the show is to work. In any case, there has to be something lean, hungry, and diabolic about Oscar, as he tries to inveigle his former lover, Lily, who has traded Broadway for Hollywood stardom, to come home and revive his fortunes. For this wily wooing to succeed, Oscar’s henchmen have dishonestly snared for him, on the luxe Twentieth Century Limited’s sixteen-hour trip from Chicago to New York, a compartment adjoining the unsuspecting Lily’s.

Baldwin, no longer the nervily muscular leading-man stud of yore, has filled out into a comfily chubby Tinseltown character actor with complacent jowls whence issues a somewhat strangulated voice, masticating rather than fusillading his lines. The seductive robe and swanky slippers William Ivey Long has bedizened him with do not sit here on a famished schemer counseled by despair.

“As Lily Garland, Anne Heche suggests a B-movie starlet rather than a peremptory diva.”

Worse yet is this Lily made hash of by Heche. With her anorectic anatomy, Kewpie-doll countenance, and beach-party chirping, Heche suggests a B-movie starlet rather than a peremptory diva, confirming that Lilys who fester smell far worse than weeds.

Too bad. The supporting cast shines with Tom Aldredge, Dan Butler, Stephen DeRosa, and Julie Halston giving their level best, and Long’s costumes, John Lee Beatty’s décor, and Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting casting their several spells. Director Walter Bobbie, despite some excess, supplies the requisite frenzy; the loss is not total, but the luster is dimmed.

As an actor, Tim Robbins sparkles, and he has shown some talent as a filmmaker. But if Embedded is any indication, playwriting is something he should leave alone. It is the story, if story there is, of three soldiers—two men and one woman—torn from their loved ones by the war in Iraq . . . sorry, Gomorrah.

Alternatingly, we see scenes in which our government officials, here called the Office of Special Plans, sit in conclave, thinking up the hapless policies and self-justifying lies that land us in a too-costly war. Robbins’s imagination goes beyond calling Iraq Gomorrah; it stretches to making Baghdad Babylon, and bestowing on the warmongers such ribtickling monikers as Rum Rum, Gondola, and Pearly White, as well as half-masks that turn them into half-caricatures. (The other half is supplied by their dialogue.)

Further than that, there is only secondhand journalism, bolstered by clichés and histrionics. Robbins is honest enough to acknowledge reportage from four named journalists, but not enough so to declare them, in effect, co-authors. There is nothing in Embedded that an enterprising high-school student who had ingested enough news reports, and perused enough comic strips, could not have concocted just as well.

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