Latin King

Barre Girl: Laura Morante seduces crusading lawman Javier Bardem in The Dancer Upstairs.

Javier Bardem, the star of The Dancer Upstairs, is that rare modern performer who personifies heroism. This quality isn’t necessarily a guarantee of great acting talent; Gary Cooper and Clark Gable had it, for example, and yet they didn’t have much depth. But truly gifted actors with an epic presence are among the glories of moviegoing: Sean Connery, Gian Maria Volonté, Toshirô Mifune, Max Von Sydow, Robert Ryan, Jean Gabin—these are performers who inspire artists who think big. In The Dancer Upstairs, Bardem plays Agustin Rejas, an idealistic lawyer turned policeman in a corrupt, unnamed Latin American country, and we can see in him both the crusader and the enforcer. Bardem doesn’t yet rank alongside those other luminaries, but his expressiveness and emotional range are richly nuanced.

Rejas is chasing communist guerrillas threatening to bring down the government, and you get the feeling a part of him believes it’s worth bringing down. He is torn between his ardor for justice and his commitment to duty. What separates The Dancer Upstairs from the usual run of movies about obsessed lawmen is that Rejas isn’t simply a monomaniac; he actually has a life. When he takes an interest in, say, his daughter’s dancing lessons, the moment doesn’t seem icky. That’s because Rejas has already demonstrated for us his capacity for normalcy. Of course, he also ends up taking an interest in the dance instructor, Yolanda (the ravishing Laura Morante). But his attraction for her doesn’t make him unsympathetic; instead, it completes him. When he is with the elusive, tentative Yolanda, he seems suspended in time, as if her presence were a kind of sanctuary from the violence in his life. These scenes have a rapt stillness.

John Malkovich, making his directorial debut, does less well with the more overtly political aspects of the film, which the screenwriter, Nicholas Shakespeare, adapted from his novel of the same name about the manhunt for a real-life Peruvian guerrilla. In the movie, that leader is called Ezequiel (Abel Folk), and at times he’s such a strutting caricature of a Latin American rebel that you half expect him to sport a gold tooth. Malkovich is attracted to the idea of making a Costa Gavras–style thriller—he even has the guerrillas watching State of Siege—but his scenes of insurgency seem rather perfunctory. They’re bulletins from another, more incendiary kind of movie. The Dancer Upstairs is at its best in the interludes between explosions.

The National Spelling Bee has always had a Spirit of America aura that I find slightly obnoxious; knowing how to spell baroquely difficult words, after all, isn’t automatically high proof of good citizenship. But, as Jeff Blitz’s entertaining documentary Spellbound shows, it’s undeniable that a disproportionate number of Spelling Bee finalists are from first-generation immigrant families who regard good spelling as the passport to the good life. Blitz chose eight boys and girls from widely disparate backgrounds, all of whom compete for the top prize. Some of the kids—like Angela, whose parents are Mexican immigrants speaking almost no English, or Ashley, the black daughter of a single mother in the D.C. projects, or Ted, who grew up in rural Missouri in his family’s double-wide trailer—are almost too perfectly cast as contestants. And yet their stories are real, and so is their valor. They’re thrilled and a bit awed by their success, and they seem genuine in wishing each other well. Blitz interviews the kids in a free-form way that disarms them and brings out their blithe eccentricities. (One boy, Harry, is a geeky sprite who cracks up at his own jokes; when it comes time for him to spell cephalagia, you really pull for him to ace it.) The parents, for the most part, come across more conventionally, but perhaps mention should be made of the father of Neil, who lives with his parents and sister in upscale San Clemente, California. This guy drills his son for the championship by hiring spelling coaches and running through computer programs of words given to past winners—he even tries to organize prayer circles for his boy back in India, with promises of payback should he win. He’s as annoying as any stage parent could ever be, and although I feel duty-bound not to reveal the winner here, let’s just say that prayer does not always work miracles.

It Runs in the Family is a dismal psychodrama starring Michael Douglas and Kirk Douglas, Kirk’s wife (and Michael’s mother), Diana, and Michael’s son Cameron. They all bear the same relation to each other in the movie as they do in real life. (Bernadette Peters plays Michael’s wife—Catherine Zeta-Jones must have read the script.) Fred Schepisi, the great Australian director, had the thankless task of trying to turn Jesse Wigutow’s screenplay into something with a pulse, but his finesse is wasted on this steaming heap of dysfunctionalism. Michael Douglas plays a New York lawyer grappling with a gaggle of life problems, but it’s obvious the film was tailored as a vanity piece for the Douglas clan. Some family albums should not be shared.

Richard Kwietniowski’s Owning Mahowny is based on the actual case history of an assistant bank manager in Toronto, mild-mannered Dan Mahowny, who siphoned over $10 million in bank funds in the early eighties to fuel his gambling habit. Philip Seymour Hoffman, ably supported by John Hurt as an oleaginous casino operator and Minnie Driver as Dan’s trusty girlfriend, plays the lead. Although he’s a bit too entranced with his own shlubbiness, Hoffman doesn’t do any of the obvious things that one might expect from a role of this type—he doesn’t trick up his performance with a lot of hot-streak hoo-ha. The trouble is, he goes so far in the opposite direction that Dan barely seems to have any inner life at all (and not much of an outer one, either). Hoffman has his specialty, though, and it’s not inappropriate here: He always looks supersmart and yet his reactions to what goes on around him are superslow. The dichotomy makes psychological sense for a man like Mahowny, whose brain isn’t wired to his body.

The Dancer Upstairs
Directed by John Malkovich; starring Javier Bardem and Laura Morante.

Directed by Jeff Blitz.

Latin King