Every movie star has a ghost resume. We remember all the hits-Dustin Hoffman’s Graduate, Goldie Hawn’s Private Benjamin, Tom Hanks’ Big-and the larger flops stick with us too, which is why Bruce Willis will never live down Hudson Hawk. In between are movies that get thrown at the cultural memory wall and slide right off. Perhaps you actually have seen John and Mary, Criss Cross, and Every Time We Say Goodbye-all bona fide star vehicles for, respectively, Hoffman, Hawn, and Hanks. Fine. Now tell me what they were about.
It was harder to see lousy career choices 10 years ago, when you had to stay up for the Howl of the Wolf Movie. These days, though, home video casts actors’ careers in amber by making their entire filmographies public. Richard Gere and Lena Olin won’t soon be able to forget Mr. Jones, even if they want to. Likewise, Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan know that someone, somewhere, will be watching Flesh and Bone, and Danny Glover can rest assured that The Saint of Fort Washington is finding an audience, however unsuspecting.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Marginal movies can be more interesting (please note that I did not say more entertaining) than hits, because they show stars trying to stretch in new directions. And often falling on their faces in the bargain, but, hey, no pain, no gain.
Take Mr. Jones, in which the glassy surface that is Richard Gere’s movie persona gets hammered to no avail. Directed by Mike Figgis (who gave the star his best role to date, in Internal Affairs), Jones features Gere as a skittery manic-depressive and Lena Olin as his psychiatrist, a wallflower who unethically blooms in his presence. That double miscasting makes the movie impossible to believe but decent bad fun. Olin is too naturally vibrant to play repressed, Gere is too naturally serene for his torment to feel as though it’s coming from within, and they’re both so naturally gorgeous that it doesn’t matter much. The performances aren’t all that’s wrong, though. Even when the hero tanks into paranoia, the turgid script blunts the story’s edge (one of the dumber conceits is that the shrink still calls her patient ”Mr. Jones” after she sleeps with him). In short, a little too spongy for high- quality junk food.
At least it has a trash quotient. No such luck with Flesh and Bone, a pretentious Texas gothic that sucks the spontaneity out of two high-spirited stars. It’s possible that writer-director Steve Kloves’ film looked better in theaters, where his neobiblical notions of fate might have passed for art. On video, this is a glacial bore. Quaid plays a tight-lipped vending-machine operator named Arlis, who as a child saw his burglar father (James Caan) kill all the members of a farm family except the baby. Ryan plays the sad, vulnerable tootsie-with-a-secret he falls for. The father returns and wants to settle old scores; Arlis won’t let him. And that’s it. So little actually happens in Flesh and Bone that it’s rather startling.
And what purpose is there in hiring Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid only to muzzle them? It’s not that they can’t play serious-Ryan was amazing as a trashy bad girl in the little-seen Promised Land, and Quaid did just fine in Everybody’s All-American-but these roles go against the flair (his ribald, hers perky) that makes them interesting to watch in the first place. I recently saw an old movie that cast John Wayne in a bit part as a banker- wearing a suit, no less-and the sense of whiplash dislocation was the same. In Flesh and Bone, this couple wears suits made of dourness.
Compare that with Danny Glover, who could play Jack the Ripper, Henry V, or-as he does in The Saint of Fort Washington-a homeless veteran named Jerry, and make them all affable bears. Like a lot of films about the lower depths, Saint feels both unbearably real and not real enough: What sentiment there is feels painted on. The paradox is reflected in the performances of both Glover and Matt Dillon (who plays a naive schizophrenic Jerry takes under his wing). Both men hedge away from the darker emotions that might give their characters real weight and honest dignity.
Glover may, in fact, be constitutionally incapable of playing the darker side: Even cast as the Devil in To Sleep With Anger, he’s one happy fella. (That steady optimism is partially why he’s so trusted by white audiences and distrusted by some black audiences who feel an African-American actor has certain attitudes to maintain.) But what Glover’s approach sacrifices in depth, it makes up for in consistency. In other words, he has made his share of marginal movies (ever see Bat 21? Pure Luck? Predator 2?), but he’s graceful-and cautious-enough for them to rarely seem his fault. Mr. Jones: C Flesh and Bone: C- The Saint of Fort Washington: B-