Alicia Silverstone, Gwyneth Paltrow

By Ty Burr
July 23, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

Pip is now Finn (Ethan Hawke), a brooding painter. Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a creamy jet-setting dream girl. Miss Havisham has become Miss Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft), mamboing around her ruined Gulf Coast mansion to the scratchy strains of ”Besame Mucho.” At times, the latest version of Charles Dickens’ ”Great Expectations” seems specifically designed to spark mass coronaries among the nation?s English-literature professors.

Actually, it’s just the most recent in the mini-genre of films that take works from the classical canon and retool them for the MTV generation. Partially a by-product of the 1990s renaissance in period films — in which Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, E.M. Forster, and Henry James have acquired the marquee status once reserved for, oh, Troy Donahue — ”neoclassics” can be much more than pandering Cliffs Notes aimed at mall rats. It’s worth remembering that Austen’s ”Emma” and Shakespeare’s ”Romeo and Juliet” were created and received as popular entertainments, and that if the films most recently made from them — 1995’s ”Clueless” and 1996’s ”Romeo & Juliet” -? gloss over deeper themes, they both recover the solid melodrama stowed away under all those bonnets and doublets.

As for ”Expectations,” well, the new film fails because it doesn’t trust vulgar old melodrama enough. There lies the conundrum filmmakers of modernized classics face: If you shoot for the art-house crowd, the kids won’t go, and the critics will still hate you for spray-painting the masters. It may just be that you can’t honestly speak to a broad audience UNLESS the snobs have a cow.

”Clueless” did a tactful end run around the whole problem by never stating anywhere in its credits that the story of a Beverly Hills Miss Fix-It named Cher (Alicia Silverstone) was modeled on Austen’s 1816 novel. Instead, the movie’s publicists doled the connection out like chum to the ”grown-up” media, since they were the only ones who would, like, care. All that mattered to the adolescent audience was that the picture (a) starred the babe from the Aerosmith videos and (b) was a good movie. Nevertheless, staying true to the plot and tone of ”Emma” had a lot to do with (b). Both writer Austen and writer-director Amy Heckerling see their heroines as spoiled but fundamentally decent, their meddling in friends’ love lives the mark of a dangerous but touching immaturity that — as always in Austen — dissolves to allow for greater gravity and true love.

Baz Luhrmann, by contrast, flung the gauntlet in the critics’ faces with his film’s official title: William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. That tactic was both ironic and straight-up: While the director moved 15th-century Verona, Italy, to 1990s Verona Beach, Fla., and visually threw everything into the postmodern Mixmaster, he retained the play?s dialogue — and in Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, he found a couple whose charismatic longing is both of the moment and eternally teenage. The movie is out of control precisely because it honors the way youthful passion tears the world down and builds it back up in its own narcissistic image.

About all you can say for the new ”Great Expectations” is that it looks like the Dickens. But in updating the tale of an orphan boy who’s aided by a mysterious benefactor and who obsesses over a beautiful woman who has been taught by her mad guardian that men are for breaking, writer Mitch Glazer (”Three of Hearts”) and director Alfonso Cuaron (”A Little Princess”) have squeezed out all the juicy pulp.

Like much of Dickens’ work, ”Expectations” was originally written as a magazine serial, and the book is packed with rich characters, outrageous coincidences, ridiculous turns of fortune. That’s right, it’s a soap opera — albeit one with a sharp class consciousness. The movie, on the other hand, is a glutinous, upscale romance, with two stars who rarely strike sparks — Hawke is a mopey stick throughout — and a clichéd New York art-world setting that’s difficult for anyone outside the Upper East Side/Hamptons axis to give a fig about. Bancroft does impart a nicely nutty ”Baby Jane” spin to her scenes, but the filmmakers even rob her of the fiery death with which Dickens dispatched the original Miss Havisham. Too tacky, I suppose — too sensationalistic. But don’t the great works of literature teem with sensation? Aren’t these books classics because they get us where we live? Of course they are. Any teenager could tell you that. Great Expectations: C-; Clueless: B+; Romeo & Juliet: B+

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