Most foreign directors who make a name for themselves in America do so first with entries we call ”art-house films.” I’ve never liked that term — what’s the opposite, junk-house movies? Still, you know what the phrase implies: small, poetic, personalized dramas and comedies, often subtitled, that look and feel nothing like American movies, possibly because they’re set in Macedonia or France or China and show little boys peeing. They are usually delightful, these emotionally expressive stories — so tender, so serious, so funny, so unlike great big, shiny Hollywood smash hits — and some of them, boosted by Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language Film, become small-scale successes here. Following which, something remarkable occasionally happens: The directors of those anointed successes are invited by Americans to make a Hollywood movie. And because these directors grew up adoring big, shiny, American products, they jump at the chance. Out of such good intentions come such odd fits as A Walk in the Clouds.
Alfonso Arau has a somewhat easy time of it in A Walk in th Clouds. The Mexican filmmaker who made kitchens look like boudoirs in Like Water for Chocolate transports that same fairy-tale feeling to this romance set in Northern California, about a soldier returning from World War II who meets a beautiful, unmarried, pregnant woman on a bus and poses as her husband so she can face her imperious, vineyard-owning father.
So far, so much magical realism, right? Spanish actress Aitana Sanchez-Gijon is luminous as the daughter of the grape kingdom; Papa is played with much teeth-flashing by Giancarlo Giannini; and granddad is Zorba himself, Anthony Quinn, waxing wise and gulping life. But the big studio misstep is that Hollywood pinup Keanu Reeves plays the soldier. Keanu Reeves! Why? Because he knows about buses? With his stiff body language and wooden delivery, his every word falls like drops of flat Diet Coke rather than intoxicating wine. I picture Arau lifting a glass of the stuff and shrugging: Hooray for Hollywood. C+