Star Wars movies don't have to be great to clean up. Witness Episode I -- The Phantom Menace, which grossed $431 million at the North American box office yet elicited nary a good word from anyone. They're the franchise of franchises. So it was a pleasant surprise to find that Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones is a smoother ride than the last installment, with deeper emotional tones and more propulsive battle sequences. (Maybe George Lucas didn't much care for Phantom Menace either, and wanted to make amends.) It's still a distant third behind the only two episodes I've ever really liked -- the original Star Wars, which for all its mythic signposts was pure, clunky fun; and its sequel The Empire Strikes Back, a glorious pop fantasia from beginning to end -- but it has a couple of sequences that hold their own with either of them.
Set ten years after the events of Phantom Menace, Clones, which was shot entirely with digital technology and looks radiant, works best when action-packed. A separatist movement is threatening the galaxy, and in response, the slippery Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) creates a new Great Army of the Republic to join the Jedi in battle. It's the clones versus the 'droids. Throughout it all, 20-year-old Anakin (Hayden Christensen, new to the series and acceptably stalwart) bucks the tutelage of his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), while mooning over Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman), once queen of her home planet Naboo, now a senator for the Republic. Being a senator instead of a queen seems to have perked up the princess a bit -- she's not quite as encumbered by curlicued costumes and big-and-ghastly hair -- and Anakin is forever declaring his undying love for her.
Their duets, inserted primarily for the benefit of the teen-girl Titanic contingent in the audience, get dewy awfully fast. Much better is the set piece in which Obi-Wan and Anakin speed-race through the nocturnal cityscapes in pursuit of a bounty hunter who has targeted Padmé. The swerving, free-falling whoosh of these scenes is close to classic. Even better is the vast gladiatorial sequence near the end, in which Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Padmé square off in an arena against an onslaught of creepy-crawly crustaceans and mammals whose parts might have been spliced together by Hieronymous Bosch. Best is the light-saber battle between Yoda and Christopher Lee's Count Dooku. Yoda is a welcome sight, looking more like Teddy White than ever. (Another plus: Jar Jar Binks isn't around much.)
Despite all his grand-scale pronouncements about how symphonic these movies are meant to be, I doubt whether George Lucas could have fantasized back in 1977 what he was setting in motion. He's created a commercial enterprise practically unrivaled in the history of popular entertainment, and, thanks to the movies' availability on video and DVD, each new generation of kids seems as keyed in to the saga as the previous one. I long ago lost interest in the fine and not-so-fine points of the Star Wars legend, but then again, these movies aren't really meant for adults -- or at least not for this adult. Still, in its own Saturday-morning-serial kind of way, Attack of the Clones is a commendable example of the sort of movie we once loved and then outgrew. Of course, if it was even better, we wouldn't feel as if we'd outgrown it.
I'd just about given up on Hugh Grant, but in About a Boy he drops his stuttery-suave routine and comes through with some genuine emotion. As the independently wealthy Will, who fills out his days watching TV, shooting pool, sipping coffee, and sidling up to women, Grant has a larky air of low-key malice. Will figures out that single moms are prime candidates for shagging, and so he joins a single-parent support group and pretends to have a 2-year-old son. The ruse backfires, but into his life comes a fatherless 12-year-old boy, Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), who awakens in Will what it means to care for someone. I know this sounds dreary, but the material is based on Nick Hornby's 1998 novel, which was anything but, and the dialogue, often lifted straight from the book, has a sharp, knowing edge.
To compound the surprise, the film was directed by Paul and Chris Weitz, the brothers who made American Pie. Unlike that gross-out teen pic, About a Boy is sophisticated and nuanced, and every character is bursting with emotional contradictions. (As Marcus's clinically depressed mother, Toni Collette is particularly fine.) It's rare to find a comedy that also hits the low notes as well as this one does. The Weitz brothers have an instinctive sense of just how long to let a scene play out before it gets treacly; they don't undersell Will's shallowness, and so his occasional moments of real feeling seem all the more believable. It's inevitable that this movie is going to be referred to as a male version of Bridget Jones's Diary (which Grant also starred in), but it's light years ahead of that dippy, curdled confection. About a Boy gives slackderdom its due, and that turns out to be a richer achievement than anyone might have imagined.
Audiences and critics must be hungry for adultery dramas right now. How else to explain the gushy reception for Adrian Lyne's Unfaithful? A glossy, depthless melodrama, it stars Richard Gere as a cuckolded husband and Diane Lane as his comfortably married suburban wife, who has a torrid affair with a young French antiquarian-book dealer (Olivier Martinez) in SoHo whose come-ons are only a tad more subtle than George Hamilton's in Love at First Bite. (He seduces her with lines from Omar Khayyám.) Gere is playing down his standard studliness here -- we know this right away because he is first shown wearing his sweater inside out -- and it effectively cancels out his appeal. Lane, who gives the closest thing to a performance in this film, spends most of her time looking hot and bothered. In that order. The film is based on a much better one, Claude Chabrol's La Femme Infidèle, but lovers of French cinema should know that all is not lost: In the film's most (unintentionally) risible sequence, the two lovebirds get it on in an empty revival house playing a Jacques Tati movie. If this film is a hit, perhaps the revival scene in New York will get a much-needed boost.
Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones
Directed by George Lucas; starring Hayden Christensen, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman.
About a Boy
Directed by Paul and Chris Weitz; starring Hugh Grant, Nicholas Hoult.