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Treacly Kid Stuff

Bruce Willis runs into his 8-year-old self, and it's a letdown; Rocky and Bullwinkle get the post-Cold War blues -- and that's a letdown, too.

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Thin man: Willis, with his chubby childhood self (Spencer Breslin), in Disney's The Kid.  

Disney's The Kid is the official title of the new Bruce Willis movie, in order to distinguish it, I suppose, from Charlie Chaplin's The Kid. Disney should be so lucky. It's the latest in a burgeoning lineup of Hollywood movies portraying bighearted, yearning, family-minded men, including films as disparate as Frequency, The Patriot, Gladiator, and Big Daddy. Willis plays Russ Duritz, a smirky, caustic image consultant who makes a highly lucrative living bossing important people around; single and childless, he's on the verge of turning 40 when he starts to catch fleeting glimpses of a plump 8-year-old and thinks he's hallucinating. It turns out that Rusty (Spencer Breslin) is Russ's very own 8-year-old self magically transported to the here and now. Once over the shock, the two compare disappointments: Rusty is annoyed that his older self doesn't have a dog, that he isn't a pilot; Russ is mortified to be reminded of the cowardly loser he thinks he was. Guess which one of these two gets a total makeover?

Despite the two-ton whimsy, the basic premise is promising: Who wouldn't, on some level, want to reconnect with the kid he or she once was? The problem here is that the director, Jon Turteltaub, and his screenwriter, Audrey Wells, play things out almost entirely as a life lesson. Russ is ashamed of who he was, and so, naturally, he must be made to realize that he wasn't so bad after all and that the walled-in creep he has become isn't the real him. Russ turns out to be a sensitive kind of guy, with a soft spot for puppies and his (sort-of) girlfriend Amy (Emily Mortimer). She sees in the outer adult the inner child. Or maybe it's the other way around.

Turteltaub is aiming for a Christmas Carol-style classic. Russ the Scrooge looks back on who he was and reforms not only his present but his future. (Did I already mention that there's a pooch in that future?) The point seems to be that you have to accept, and love, who you are, but the point is smudged since Russ, through a bit of time-travel trickery, gets to rework his own childhood-defining moment and punch out some grade-school bullies. Interlarded with all this inspirational twinkliness is some standard Psych 101: The traumatized kid's inability to defend himself has resulted in gross overcompensation. The bullied has become the bully. In order to be a caring individual now, Russ needs to go back in time and fight.

The Kid operates on the assumption that the children we once were are the essence of who we are, and that, by not coming to terms with our inner dweeb, we're just making ourselves miserable no matter how successful we may become. I wish the filmmakers had taken a less gaga route: What's infuriating about people isn't the ways they've changed but the ways they haven't. The Kid might have been a lot funnier, and less homiletic, if it had shown Rusty to be a pint-size jerk instead of a chubby-cheeked charmer.

Although Russ and Rusty are technically the same person, the relationship comes across essentially as father and son. Rusty's unruliness is squarely in the standard precocious-tyke mode; Russ's exasperations with him have a sitcom familiarity. (In those sitcoms, the kid is always wiser than the parent.) Russ's actual father is shown to have been a closed-off man himself, and Russ's mother died when he was young; in that curious logic by which Hollywood operates, Russ implicitly forgives his estranged father by accepting the boy he, Russ, once was. His conflicts are cured. Love makes him whole.

The Kid offers up a drippier variation of the latest movie cliché: the tough guy who, in loving his progeny, reveals a tender heart. In The Patriot, it is Mel Gibson's love for his family, for his children, that sets him off on the bloody road to righteousness; in Gladiator, we are subjected to the numerous meltingly delicate family reveries of Russell Crowe; in Frequency, a cop reunites with his long-dead firefighter father across time and ends up reconstituting his own life and saving his dad. Fatherhood is being used as a tenderizer in movies about manly men. The bonding ritual in The Kid, despite its sitcom trappings, is carried out with great solemnity, and Bruce Willis wears a long face throughout, as if he were trying to channel his performance from The Sixth Sense.

All this heavy-duty gooeyness about tough-tender guys is basically old-style Hollywood sentimentality in a new context. What these films are perhaps symptomatic of is the male-achiever version of having it all: The macho commanders of the corporate era have figured out that there may be more to life than raking it in and bossing people around, so now they want to be thought of as caregivers, husbands -- homebodies. Except the gladiators, both old and new, in these movies rarely have a fulfilling connection with any woman, at least not until the fade-out. Women don't have much to do in these films except react to the guys with appropriately dewy sympathy; after all, they're women. The primal relationship is generally between man and boy, father and son, or else some domestic arrangement that is more of a faded memory than a reality. Even in a familial setting, the men are essentially loners, and that's also a part of the films' ersatz romanticism. These guys most likely are too damaged to be successful fathers and husbands, but at least they are made to know what they're missing, and what to reach for.

It's too bad that Bruce Willis isn't playing a movie producer in The Kid instead of an image consultant; if he were, the film's self-serving sentimentality might really have rocked. We're still left with a lulu of a high-concept weepie: A man searching for his inner child literally finds him. But I'm not all that impressed. After all, Hollywood has never had much of a problem locating its inner child. It's the inner adult who's always been awol.

In brief: In The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, which mixes live action and animation, Robert De Niro plays Fearless Leader, and he gets to recap his "You talking to me?" speech from Taxi Driver. Rather than seeming impious, this rendition is the film's comic high point, even though most children in the audience won't get the comedy. If we're going to be recycling great movie bits, I suppose it's best if the original players are doing the recycling. Besides, De Niro's acting lately could use some lightening up, and his pomaded meanie here looks like an actor's holiday. The film itself, which also features Jason Alexander and Rene Russo as Boris and Natasha, is enjoyable but a mixed bag -- not quite kiddie-ish enough for the kids and not quite brainy enough for their parents.


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