Elvis, Unplugged

On the reasonable assumption that no movie featuring an Elvis impersonator can be wholly bad, I was prepared for a high old time at 3000 Miles to Graceland, which exhibits a plenitude of Elvi. The exhibition does not last very long, however. Less than a third of the way through, the filmmakers jettison the premise and trash their own movie. The film begins with two recently released prison cellmates, Michael (Kurt Russell) and Murphy (Kevin Costner), preparing to rob the Riviera Hotel and Casino in Vegas by posing, along with three confederates, as Elvis impersonators during International Elvis Week. Toting submachine guns in their guitar cases, this deadpan quintet, including David Arquette, Christian Slater, and Bokeem Woodbine, strides through the gaming halls like a phalanx of enforcers. It’s Ocean’s 11 redone in beaded jumpsuits, and you can feel the actors’ play-act pleasure in strutting and swiveling like the King. There’s even the suggestion that Murphy, and perhaps Michael, are Elvis’s illegitimate sons. Murphy certainly believes he’s the heir; he sports his wedgelike sideburns as if they were talismans.

If the film had stuck with these guys and the heist and the hotel, it might have really scored. But the director, Demian Lichtenstein, who also co-wrote the script with Richard Recco, is yet another music-video-trained guy, and he can’t keep his mind on anything for very long. I began to really despair when the robbery went wrong and suddenly the screen was aglitter with more firepower than in Saving Private Ryan. It turns out that the reason Lichtenstein utilized the Riviera was not because of Elvis glitz but because of all the glass and mirrors and chandeliers. They make quite a show when they shatter.

The considerable mayhem, and much more that ensues, is always accompanied by a blaring music soundtrack that seems intent on registering its own kills. For a movie that trades on Elvis Presley and his music so much, it’s a bit insulting to be continually hammered by this wall of noise. Elvis has become such a confounding kitsch icon that – pace Greil Marcus – no one knows what to make of him anymore, but I’m pretty sure that he and his sound don’t deserve to be fronting this clobberfest in which people are jokingly savaged and a little boy witnessing a murder suffers the same emotional repercussions that he would watching the WWF. Unlike Russell and Costner, the filmmakers don’t appear to have much affection, let alone reverence, for Presley. They’re strictly Fat Elvis people.

Maybe one reason Russell and Costner connect strongly with the movie’s premise is that they’re part of the generation that was old enough to respond to the live Elvis. Russell actually played him, extremely well, in the 1979 John Carpenter TV movie Elvis, and, as a child actor, kicked the King in the shins in It Happened at the World’s Fair. Russell understands what it means to be taken over by the man’s strut and snarl; he gets into the complicated macho of the impersonation. Kevin Costner, playing a sociopath who wants all the booty, is even more remarkable. With his dark shades and black leather jumpsuit and hair that looks like it was slicked with motor oil, Costner’s Murphy is a throwback not only to the Elvis of Jailhouse Rock but also to the Brandoesque bad-boy JDs of the fifties. Costner’s core of danger is like a tribute to the Elvis that might have been – the surly Elvis who never really made it into the movies because Colonel Parker had other ideas.

Costner has often been characterized as the Gary Cooper of his generation, but at his best he’s too ornery and spring-wound for that. When Costner tries to be lyrically laconic, as in Message in a Bottle, he’s a parody of a romantic dreamboat; he’s like an actor whose highest ambition is getting a standing ovation on Oprah. But throughout his career, beginning with Fandango and Silverado and on through Bull Durham, A Perfect World, and Tin Cup, Costner has also demonstrated a wily, edgy temperament. A better model for him is not Cooper but Burt Lancaster, who also expressed himself kinesthetically and charged his romanticism with graceful moves. Costner, as he demonstrated in Thirteen Days, can also be commandingly self-effacing, which is good tidings for those of us who thought The Postman showed off an ego as big and vacant as Greenland. In 3000 Miles to Graceland, Costner isn’t trying to be mythic or iconic or Cooperesque. He may be playing a man who believes he is in direct line to a legend, but Murphy himself is pathetically unlegendary. Costner gets inside the love-hate tensions of an impersonator and, paradoxically, shows himself off as a more authentic star than ever.

Patrice Leconte’s The Widow of Saint-Pierre gets the Thomas Hardy Seal of Approval – it’s nothing if not fatalistic. Set in 1850 on the remote French colony of Saint-Pierre off the coast of Newfoundland, it’s about how no good deed goes unpunished. Neel, played by the film director Emir Kusturica, is condemned to death for killing a man in a drunken brawl. While waiting the many months for a guillotine to arrive – in old French slang a guillotine was called a widow – Neel is taken under the kindly custody of the territory’s French military commandant (Daniel Auteuil) and his wife (Juliette Binoche). What lifts the story above the fatedly familiar is the suggestion that the wife’s ministrations toward the prisoner are a muffled form of passion, and that her husband’s complicity in such kindness spells his own doom. Leconte films in an austere yet invigorated style; the action never settles into stiff tableaux. Some of the performers could afford to be a bit more limber, though, especially Binoche, who seems freeze-dried throughout. But then she often does, even when cool temperatures are not called for. She was terribly miscast in that treacly swatch of NutraSweet, Chocolat, where she was supposed to be playing a mesmerizing charmer who enraptures an entire village. (Think early Sophia Loren or Sonia Braga.) What’s the point of banked fires without the incendiary spark? Binoche’s comportment turns The Widow of Saint-Pierre into a portrait of a benevolent prig.

Elvis, Unplugged