Here are the spring’s great movie performances
In the calm before the summer-movie storm, studios clear their shelves of films deemed too weak to release against the hot-weather blockbusters. Which explains why ”Rules of Engagement,” a feature directed by William Friedkin — who hasn’t had a hit flick since 1973’s ”The Exorcist” — has been No. 1 at the box office for the past two weeks. But don’t fret, fellow cineasts. Even if mediocre movies are currently clogging theaters, there are still great performances within them worth savoring:
Tommy Lee Jones in ”Rules of Engagement” Yes, Samuel L. Jackson’s terrific in this routine military-courtroom drama, but he’s always terrific. Jones, on the other hand, has mostly coasted since winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1993’s ”The Fugitive.” He lazily reprised that role in ”U.S. Marshals” (and unofficially in ”Double Jeopardy”) and self-indulgently ingested the scenery in ”Cobb” and ”Batman Forever.” As a Vietnam-vet lawyer in ”Rules,” Jones does some of his subtlest, most vulnerable work ever. Instead of going over the top, Jones underplays the part of a man who’s long lived in his famous father’s shadow. The film falls apart, but Jones rules.
Paul Newman in ”Where the Money Is” This wispy caper comedy looks shockingly shoddy — director Marek Kanievska hasn’t made a movie since 1987’s ”Less Than Zero,” and it shows. But even the most incompetent filmmaker couldn’t coax a false performance from Newman. As an imprisoned bank robber who fakes a stroke to get moved to a nursing home, the ”Sting” star bravely acts his age (75!). I’ll admit to squirming in my seat during the scene in which nurse Linda Fiorentino gives him a lap dance to see if he’s playing possum, yet Newman’s charmingly understated turn is every bit as good as his Oscar-nominated performance in 1994’s ”Nobody’s Fool.”
Edward Norton in ”Keeping the Faith” As a first-time director, Norton needs to learn that less is more (no romantic comedy should ever run 129 minutes). But as an actor, no one personifies that idea better. He’s riveting, even in the low-key role of a nebbishy priest competing with his rabbi best friend (Ben Stiller, also outstanding) for the affection of their childhood crush (Jenna Elfman, not so great). Norton isn’t the most conventionally handsome star, but when he’s on screen, you can’t keep your eyes off him. His off-center charisma is reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman, whose ”Rain Man” character he imitates in ”Faith.” As he might put it, ”Definitely an excellent actor.”
Steve Buscemi in ”28 Days” Sandra Bullock’s in over her head as an alcoholic in rehab; she’s too perky to have believably hit bottom. But as her counselor — a recovering booze and dope fiend — Buscemi wears his character’s troubled past on his droopy-dog face. He has the highly-developed b.s. detector of a man who’s pulled a few snow jobs of his own. Buscemi has long been one of the finest actors in independent films (”Miller’s Crossing,” ”Reservoir Dogs”), which made his recent move into mainstream Hollywood (”Con Air,” ”Big Daddy”) somewhat disturbing. This sobering role indicates he might not have to go into indie rehab.
Jack Black in ”High Fidelity” Okay, this is actually a great movie, even if relatively few people have seen it. And the best thing about it is Black’s volcanically funny work as browbeating record-store clerk Barry. One-half of the satirical acoustic-acid duo Tenacious D, Black doesn’t just steal scenes; he kidnaps them, drives them out to the middle of the desert, and leaves them for dead. When he croons an amazingly soulful version of Marvin Gaye’s ”Let’s Get It On” in the film’s romantic climax, the sequence plays like Black’s coming-out party. Before our eyes and ears, a movie star is born.