You Don’t Know Jack

Inspector with a jones:
Johnny Depp in From Hell.

In From Hell, Johnny Depp plays an opium-addicted police inspector on the trail of Jack the Ripper. This is a far cry from that gypsy-bursting-with-the-life-force role he’s been doing to death lately, but maybe not far enough. Whether he’s gypsy or gent, Depp never quite seems to be taking part in his movies. Most of the time, he looks glazed over with soulful blahs. Rooting out clues in working-class Whitechapel, Depp’s Inspector Abberline pauses over the eviscerated body of a prostitute to pick up a grape stem. Aha! Since grapes are a delicacy, the Ripper must be a wealthy man, he surmises. This is about as challenging as it gets for Abberline, who soon finds himself enmeshed in machinations involving Freemasonry and the British royal family. Isn’t it time for the royals to stop taking the rap for the Ripper? Co-directors Allen and Albert Hughes based From Hell on a graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, but the film is like a lusher version of the old Hammer horror flicks or Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe movies.

The only thrill, if you can call it that, is waiting to see who gets sliced up next. The Hughes brothers make it easy to keep a scorecard: They introduce each potential hooker victim with just enough characterization to let you know she’s in the on-deck circle. (Don’t eat the grapes.) Heather Graham, who despite her henna-red tresses here seems as wholesome as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, plays the hooker who puts a tiny dent in Abberline’s cast-iron funk. Her perfect teeth would be out of place in the mouth of a modern-day Londoner, not to mention a malnourished prostitute from 1888. The only note of authenticity in the movie comes from Ian Holm, playing the royal physician. What is this nuanced performance – at least until the final fireworks – doing in this twaddle? Holm looks like he’d be happier playing the Anthony Hopkins role in The Elephant Man, but amid all the garish hoopla and clumsily staged cavorting and bad Cockney accents, his underplaying is a balm. You have to put up with a lot these days to get at a good performance.

Bandits, which Barry Levinson directed from a hectic script by Harley Peyton, never settles into being any one kind of movie. It’s a screwball romantic-comedy buddy picture on the road, with heists and a prison break thrown in, and Levinson does a virtuoso job of keeping things moving. Normally this sort of thing would be right up my alley: I like movies that don’t settle into a groove, especially if the groove is already well worn. But the different kinds of movies that make up Bandits are pretty worn, too. At least that’s the way they come across here. What we’re getting in this movie isn’t necessarily better; it’s just more.

Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton play a pair of temperamentally opposed bank robbers who show off their mismatched personalities by yammering at each other nonstop. It’s a relief when Cate Blanchett pops up as a bored housewife who joins them. At least Blanchett knows how to be gaga in ways you haven’t seen before; she has an almost feral gift for screwball ardor, and she keeps the film on its toes. But her character is required to be in a dither over which guy to hook up with: Willis’s cooled-out stud or Thornton’s fraidy-cat dork. (He has phobias about everything, even antique furniture.) The truth is, she deserves better than either of them, or this movie.

David Lynch is being celebrated for a return to form in Mulholland Drive, but although I like it more than some of his other dreamtime freakfests, it’s still a pretty moribund ride. Lynch’s great early films, Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, were disturbingly original in ways that one almost never gets to see in a mass medium like the movies. Since that time, Lynch has gone his own way all right, but there may be only so many times you can play out the same ghastly-loopy obsessions without going stale. Mulholland Drive, which stars Naomi Watts as a blonde ingenue and Laura Elena Harring as an amnesiac shady lady, has some first-rate sex jokes and a pervasive feeling of dread that’s very L.A.-noirish. But Lynch is also the director who, in 1980, made The Elephant Man with such heartbreaking poignancy; and only a few years ago he directed The Straight Story, which had some real emotional power. Lynch needs to renew himself with an influx of the deep feeling he has for people, for outcasts, and lay off the cretins and hobgoblins and zombies for a while. Mulholland Drive is the product of David Lynch, Inc.

Fat Girl, written and directed by Catherine Breillat, is about sisterhood and the loss of virginity, but don’t let that put you off. It’s not “sensitive” in that lyrical, airbrushed way we’ve come to expect from these films, especially those from France. Breillat’s last movie, Romance, with its hard-core sequences, was a scandalous success, but I thought it was essentially porn with a Ph.D. Fat Girl, although it has a trace of sexual explicitness, isn’t trying to be shocking (except for the denouement). It captures nicely the little flare-ups and sympathies between two sisters, Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux), who is roly-poly and rather glum, and Elena (Roxane Mesquida), who, at 15, is slightly older and considerably prettier.

Vacationing with their mother at a summer house, the sisters fight over dresses and diet. When Fernando (Libero De Rienzo), a twentyish Italian law student, puts the moves on Elena, Anais suffers through their escapades. She sees much more clearly than Elena what a rake Fernando is, but in her fantasies she would probably also like to have him for herself. There are many funny touches: the on-again-off-again patter between Fernando and Elena as he persuades her to give in to him; the hangdog way he delivers his phony endearments, as if he were boring himself with his own bull.

Fat Girl is a lovely minor achievement. It would have been major if Breillat had been more expansive with respect to Anaïs instead of contentedly letting her go on about her lumpish ways. She’s not making fun of Anaïs, exactly, but Breillat’s not baring this girl’s soul, either.

From Hell
Starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham.
Starring Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, and Cate Blanchett.
Mulholland Drive
Directed by David Lynch.
Fat Girl
Directed by Catherine Breillat.

You Don’t Know Jack