May 04, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Town & Country is the biggest movie opening this weekend, and the obvious choice for review in this space. Alleged to be about hilarious midlife marital crises and confirmed to star Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Garry Shandling, and Goldie Hawn, the comedy can be seen everywhere by the time you read this. But screenings for critics were scheduled so as to miss the production deadline for Entertainment Weekly and several other weekly publications.

New Line’s marketers have evidently decided that they stand to make more money at the box office on opening weekend by attracting audiences relatively uncontaminated by published opinion. (With previous problem children ”Autumn in New York” and ”Exit Wounds,” marketers chose an even more drastic approach: The movies weren’t screened for reviewers at all.) Critics, in turn, frustrated and thwarted in a desire — and responsibility — to report to readers in a timely fashion, must fight the assumption that the movie stinks; otherwise, why hide it? Town & Country reportedly cost tens of millions of dollars more than planned, the result of rewrites and reshoots that delayed the release date — by years. Bad buzz has preceded it like an air-raid siren.

Of course, bad buzz and budget bloating also plagued Titanic — which turned out to be a masterpiece. Still, the inability to go to Town & Country, a profligately expensive, high-profile studio comedy for which Hollywood is willing to fall on its sword while gasping that the wound is just a scratch, coincides with the cautionary tale of a movie Hollywood doesn’t want you to see at all, at least not on its dime. I’m talking about the fate of The Believer.

EW has reported previously on the strange limbo of this intense, inexpensive, hot-button independent project by Henry Bean, a screenwriter (Internal Affairs) making his feature directorial debut. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, but the cachet and critical praise have been of no help in attracting a theatrical distributor willing to risk money and reputation on as ”alienating” and ”controversial” a topic as the intersection of serious bigotry, not tarted up as in American History X; and serious religion, not blurred into spiritual sludge as in Pay It Forward.

In The Believer, Ryan Gosling plays Danny Balint, a laser-bright young man of Orthodox Jewish background and yeshiva education who becomes a neo-Nazi skinhead out of a twisted, erudite love-hate of his own God. (The character is based on a 1965 New York Times account of an actual KKK member in New York discovered to be a Jew.) The more hate Danny spews — building to literally explosive proportions — the tighter Judaism’s hold on his soul. He’s Daniel in the lion’s den, or maybe Jacob wrestling with the Angel for a blessing, his religious passion and inextinguishable love of the Torah entwined with self-hate and self-destructive impulses. Danny is dangerous because he’s not just a caricature of an anti-Semitic thug glittering with too much charisma (as Edward Norton was in American History X): He’s also more learned about and devoted to the practice of his religion than any character I’ve ever seen in an American movie, studio or indie.

Gosling (Remember the Titans), a newcomer, explodes with talent and star power, but he won’t be eligible for an Oscar nomination or Independent Spirit Award, since The Believer is going to cable TV first, on Showtime. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — premium cable TV has become a safe haven for the best and most innovative work in filmmaking and storytelling. But there’s little right with the hypocrisy of Hollywood decision making, either: Millions are available for Beatty and Shandling to riff about middle-aged sex (millions even for horse genitals and elephant semen in the loathsome Freddy Got Fingered), but not one theatrical distributor, apparently, will gamble a buck on a unique feature film aflame with vivid depictions of the wages of brutish hate, lest audiences become offended and complain that the message isn’t didactic or positive enough.

Religion, it seems, is the last taboo in Hollywood subject matter, for all the wrong reasons — those of conformity and false piety, masquerading as tolerance, among people with little confidence in their own taste.

In fact, according to Bean, The Believer lost what chance it had for theatrical distribution when interested executives who didn’t trust their own taste put too much faith in the thumb of Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which runs the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Rabbi Cooper is no film professional, but he, like Abraham H. Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, is often consulted by Hollywood types to weigh in on movies having to do with Jews, or tolerance, or the Holocaust, or chocolate. And as is his right, Rabbi Cooper readily offered his opinion and his downward-pointing thumb when solicited. The Believer, he declared, ”did not work.” He was especially disturbed, he said, by scenes of desecration in a synagogue, including the apparent vandalization of a sacred Torah scroll.

Now, the worldly-wise rabbi surely knows that a Torah scroll was not actually ripped (Bean, himself Jewish, worked closely with a religious technical adviser), and that audiences watching the scene won’t be roused to copycat ripping any more than fans of Tom Green and Freddy are likely to manually stimulate an excited stallion. But even if the religious leader was offended — or, to expand the ecumenical boundaries, even if some Catholic religious leaders were offended by Dogma (a rowdy film equally well informed by both knowledge and love) — surely customers who choose to buy a ticket for Dogma or The Believer can tolerate shock, or even offense, in pursuit of serious theological wrestling with devils as well as with angels.

And surely decision makers at the kind of savvy indie boutiques where Bean’s challenging film might have found a home — groovy outfits like Paramount Classics, Miramax, Lions Gate, or Artisan — have tolerated more, in films of lesser merit. Shock these days is no longer the province of the latest worshiper at the gross-out pulpit of the Farrelly brothers. Dismay is wasted on the adversarial tactics studio publicists are employing more and more frequently with critics. Outrage, instead, is best aimed at the cowardice and condescension demonstrated toward the public by a film distribution system that slaps on a happy face as it pays the overtime bills on Town & Country, yet doesn’t believe in The Believer.

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