February 18, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

It used to be fairly simple, really. If you were a big-time movie star — one of the select few who appear on magazine covers and get the opening slot on Leno and Letterman — then your movie opened in thousands of theaters across the country, or at the very least, in a select handful of art houses. Would American audiences ever have seen Welcome to Sarajevo sans Woody Harrelson, or a Streep-free Dancing at Lughnasa? Possibly, but the presence of marquee-friendly monikers pretty much assured that the films in question, however inaccessible or obscure, would be threaded through projectors before being popped into VCRs.

No more. Nowadays, it seems, blockbuster-style notoriety is no guarantee that your latest effort won’t wind up being seen only in people’s living rooms. Pierce Brosnan, for example, had a pretty stellar 1999, luring plenty of folks away from their couches both as Thomas Crown and James Bond — yet two of his other recent films, Grey Owl and The Nephew, are nevertheless going directly to video: Do not pass go, do not collect millions in U.S. theatrical revenue.

This sad fate must be especially galling for the producers of the former — a Canadian epic that, costing $40 million, is the most expensive American video premiere since Whoopi Goldberg’s disastrous Theodore Rex wound up gathering dust on the New Release shelf. That, however, was a terminally dopey comedy about a talking dinosaur cop, while Owl is a prestige drama from Lord Richard Attenborough, the Oscar-winning director of Gandhi, Cry Freedom, and Chaplin. The true tale of a white Englishman who successfully reinvented himself as a Native American in 1930s Ontario and went on to become a noted conservationist (cue footage of beavers scampering friskily — awww), it boasts superlative production design and stunning location photography (not to mention pretty costumes). It’s also, unfortunately, a low-key, high-minded snooze.

You might think that a story as rich and provocative as Archie “Grey Owl” Belaney’s would be nearly impossible to screw up. The secret, it turns out, is to treat your subject with the kind of dewy-eyed reverence usually reserved for royalty, so that the experience of watching the movie feels akin to swimming through an enormous vat of caramel. (This is a longtime Attenborough problem — Gandhi may have won the Oscar, but do you have any desire to sit through it again, ever?) Less intriguing than Archie’s attempt to pass as a Native American is Brosnan’s attempt to pass as Clint Eastwood; he delivers every line with such steely resolve that you fear for the structural integrity of his jaw, yet he still comes across as dapper and debonair, buckskin and headdress notwithstanding.

To be fair to Brosnan’s vocal virtuosity, he does affect a credible Irish brogue (he’s Irish by birth, though he was raised in London) in The Nephew, the first film to be produced by his company, pointedly named Irish DreamTime. You’ve got to respect the guy for returning to his roots after hitting the commercial jackpot, but at the same time you have to acknowledge that his movie is a morass of twinkling old-sod cliches. A stranger comes to town — in this case, the half-black son (Hill Harper) of the community’s favorite daughter, who fled to America after a mysterious scandal involving her relationship with barkeep Brosnan — and forces its residents to confront long-buried secrets, to right hitherto unaddressed wrongs, etc. It’s all skillfully done but disappointingly familiar; even the racial angle — potentially the film’s most combustible element — leads only to a painful scene in which an Irish farmer performs a hip-hop rendition of “Whiskey in the Jar.” Brosnan, meanwhile, seems not so much restrained as sedated; his Jimmy Bond and Tommy Crown look like Pee-wee Herman by comparison.

Not that his fans will necessarily mind. A friend of mine has repeatedly expressed his willingness to watch the man eat dirt for two hours straight. Whether Brosnan has a soil-ingestion project in the works, I can’t say — but if so, I’d caution said pal not to count on it arriving at a theater near him. Grey Owl: C- The Nephew: C+



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