Besides sharing the name David, these three groundbreaking filmmakers each have the artistic courage to make creative U-turns

By Bruce Fretts
May 20, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

What’s new from Mamet, Lynch, and Cronenberg

David Mamet, David Lynch, and David Cronenberg have more in common than just their first names. All three made their mark as maverick filmmakers in the mid-`80s with signature works: Mamet’s ”House of Games,” Lynch’s ”Blue Velvet,” and Cronenberg’s ”The Fly.” Over the next dozen years, each built upon these foundations. Mamet perfected his con game (”The Spanish Prisoner”). Lynch probed the ugly underbelly of American life (”Twin Peaks”). And Cronenberg conducted baroque symphonies of sex and gore (”Dead Ringers”).

Two of these Davids have taken sharp U-turns with their latest films: Mamet’s G-rated ”The Winslow Boy” and Lynch’s Walt Disney-distributed ”The Straight Story.” Only Cronenberg stayed the course, plunging into the goo again with ”eXistenZ,” which has barely made a box office ripple. Should he have followed the family-friendly trend?

Not necessarily. ”eXistenZ” isn’t Cronenberg’s best film — that’d be 1991’s ”Naked Lunch” — but it’s far from his worst. The auteur hit his nadir with 1997’s ”Crash,” a crashing bore that succeeded neither as an art film nor as pornography. That flick was such a fiasco that Cronenberg may have alienated his core crowd of strong-stomached intellectuals. The mismarketing of ”eXistenZ” by Miramax’s Dimension division as a straight horror movie didn’t help, either.

Its failure is a shame, since it marks a semi-return to form for the filmmaker. The virtual game inside which designer Allegra Gellar (Jennifer Jason Leigh) gets trapped is a flesh-colored contraption that plugs into players’ spines with an umbilical-like cord. These vaguely erogenous gizmos — I swear to God they have nipples — harken back to the vagina-ish VCRs in Cronenberg’s 1983 shocker ”Videodrome.”

Of course, visual effects have improved greatly since then, so the ultraviolence in ”eXistenZ” feels far more realistic and disturbing. Still, as one character puts it while chowing down on a heaping plate of mutant reptiles, ”It’s disgusting, but I can’t help myself.” There’s something undeniably compelling about Cronenberg’s grotesquerie.

Mamet’s ”Winslow Boy” couldn’t be more different, yet it’s equally riveting. An adaptation of a 1940s Terence Rattigan play, it concerns an early-20th-century English boy who’s accused of stealing a five-shilling mail order. His father (Nigel Hawthorne) fights to get the kid a fair trial, and the case causes a huge public contretemps.

Just because it’s rated G and its protagonist is a youngster doesn’t mean ”The Winslow Boy” is a kiddie movie. The drama, which has earned Mamet some of the best reviews of his career, is doing well in limited release and will no doubt play through the summer as an intelligent, adult alternative to the big-budget schlockbusters.

Upon closer examination, it’s not such a great departure from Mamet’s earlier ouevre. While these veddy proper characters would never utter the author’s trademark profanities, their words are still deceptive — not because they’re trying to fleece someone but because British society won’t allow them to express their true feelings.

As for my true feelings about Lynch’s new film, they’re yet to be determined. ”The Straight Story” is currently screening at Cannes, and its premise is intriguing: An elderly man (Richard Farnsworth) takes a long journey — on a riding mower — to visit his ill brother. Like Cronenberg did with ”Crash,” Lynch got bogged down in auto-erotica on his last film, the ridiculously lurid ”Lost Highway.” One can only hope ”The Straight Story” puts him back on the right road again.

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