In the beginning of Down to You actress Julia Stiles has a tremendous cold sore on her lip. While a palette knife covered with makeup was undoubtedly slathered on this gaping wound, it is nonetheless quite visible beneath its lipstick mask. As her character engages in incredibly mundane teen-love banter with cute-boy-of-the-month Freddie Prinze Jr., I was on the edge of my seat waiting to see if he'd actually kiss the blistering contagion that raged on her face. It's a tense scene; while she asks him what his favorite ice cream is, and if he had a nice childhood, and does he like gum, you can see him eyeing the sore, wondering if the director will make him go in for the contractual lip lock.
At last, the scene cuts away, and no kiss. A heavy sigh of relief is breathed by all. Then, suddenly, there they are again...kissing! At first just a peck, then with intertwined lips until Freddie Jr. is virtually sucking on the sore. Wow.
The plot continues, as does their romance, and a few scenes later, there it is -- Freddie Prinze now has the cold sore. Amazing. It's like watching a documentary embedded in a work of fiction.
The cold sore is something of a metaphor for the whole film, actually, which is predicated on the idea that dangerously bad judgment is just a part of growing up. The first 10 minutes includes the following vices: underage sex, underage drinking, teen smoking and teenagers acting in porno films. Seriously. Sadly, that's the high point of the film, as from there the plot closes in more and more on the college romance of art student Imogen (Julia Stiles) and burgeoning chef Al Connelly (Prinze). Watching them is about as exciting as hanging around two people who are actually in love.
The film does show a (probably unintentional) sense of irony in casting Henry Winkler as Al's father. I'm sure current teen sex god Prinze must have felt a terrible shudder of foreboding every time he looked at lumpy, sagging ex-teen idol Winkler. (For our younger readers, I should note that Winkler played "The Fonz," who was inexplicably thought of as "cool" back in the '70s.)
In striking contrast, subtle and intentional irony is the hallmark of the dialogue of End of the Affair, one of those rare films that will allow an understated remark to pass without explanation. It's strange that we live in a culture where it's refreshing to see a film that doesn't treat its audience as though they were recovering from massive head wounds, but since we do I'd suggest anyone with a love of wit (as opposed to comedy) greet End of the Affair with open arms.
The story is unfortunately a bit hackneyed, coming from a novel by Graham Greene wherein he constructs plots as though he were the Pasternak of Piccadilly. It centers around an affair between a married woman (Julianne Moore) and a successful novelist (Ralph Fiennes) that takes place in London during and after the second World War. However, two things raise it above the level of the Oscar-mongering period pieces that tend to hit theaters this time of year.
First, the cinematography is nearly flawless. Lensman Roger Pratt cut his teeth on such fantasy fare as Brazil, Batman and The Fisher King. Here, he uses the same bag of tricks with remarkable restraint to move across time and place as the story flashes backwards and forwards.
Second, the performances are almost all spot-on, with the exception of Moore's, as her stagy style is not at its best here. The scene stealer is little-known character actor Ian Hart as private detective Parkis. Hart's deadpan delivery on lines like "my experience is that diaries always reveal things," gives the film about half of its sly humor. The other half comes from Fiennes, who, upon hearing that his lover may be deceiving him with a man named Smythe, notes that "one can hardly make a fuss about a man named Smythe." Only by a very English reigning in of expression can that kind of wit succeed, and Fiennes pulls it off perfectly.
On the down side, the story gives itself away by means of a cough. I would love to see a movie where a character coughs and it doesn't mean anything. Of course, we all know what's going to happen to anyone unfortunate enough to cough on camera, but I kept hoping the film would escape its ineluctable destination, since it earned such high marks for its script. Nonetheless, the cinematic obviousness of some of its plot points is not enough to undo what is otherwise an admirably intelligent film.
In a glaring case of lack of intelligence, Down to You has the audacity to bill itself as a romantic comedy without actually offering any laughs or a terribly compelling romance. Meanwhile, End of the Affair must list itself as a drama, because that's what people expect out of an artsy period piece. It is, however, strikingly free of the manipulative manner found in most of what passes for drama, and is also far funnier and more romantic than anything calling itself a romantic comedy. I just wish every movie were at least as diverting as End of the Affair. If only that were the case I would no longer be obliged to make my own fun during a film by looking for dermatological imperfections on the faces of young actors.
The End of the Affair is playing at Catalina (881-0616) and Century El Con (202-3343) cinemas.