Friday December 12, 1997
We hate to hit a man when he's down, but what a week for Robert Downey Jr.! On Monday, a judge orders him to jail for six months for violating probation on past drug offenses, and today, "Hugo Pool" opens, putting on public display one of the worst performances he or any major star has recorded on film.
It would be better for all concerned if the movie were being shown only in Downey's cell. Being forced to watch himself playing Franz Mazur, a punch-drunk, homicidal, tongue-tied Dutch film director, in this woebegone farce would be tough love indeed.
Mazur is one of the many oddball customers being serviced by Hugo Dugay (Alyssa Milano, from TV's "Who's the Boss?"), a self-employed Los Angeles pool cleaner, who awakes one day in the midst of a drought to a backlog of 44 jobs. To get them all done, she enlists her drug- and alcohol-addicted father, Henry (Malcolm McDowell), who devotes most of his sober moments to spouting verse that rhymes with "ring-dang-do," and her mother, Minerva (Cathy Moriarty), an addicted gambler who's trying to earn enough money to pay off her bookie ("Gong Show" emcee Chuck Barris) without having to sleep with him.
Early on, Henry is sent to the Colorado River to steal enough water to fill a mobster's pool, while Mom tags along with Hugo, serving no discernible purpose. Along their separate ways, Henry picks up a companion (Sean Penn), whose blue shoes Henry takes for the Holy Grail, and Hugo and Minerva pick up a client named Floyd (Patrick Dempsey), a mute, keenly spirited man in a wheelchair who is in the final stages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease.
At this point, at least halfway through the movie, "Hugo Pool" becomes what it's really intended to be, an ode to unconditional love. Hugo, a young woman with no prior romantic illusions, falls in love with the sensitive Floyd and begins to shed the lunatics around her to focus on him.
The director, Robert Downey Sr. ("Putney Swope" and not much else), co-wrote the script with his wife, Laura Downey, who died of ALS at the age of 36 and whose "beautiful absurdist sense of nonsense," he says, inspired the spirit of the film.
Downey's sentiment is admirable, but "Hugo Pool" doesn't transcend the intimacy of the memory he's honoring. If Floyd were the central character of the story, being amused by the absurdist nonsense, we might at least appreciate the humor vicariously. As it is, the audience seems limited to the director's inner circle.
That circle includes Robert Downey Jr., who has been appearing in his father's films since he was 5, and maybe his manic, presumably improvised performance here is the sort of thing that rocked the Downey household. But given the actor's off-camera adventures, it's hard not to regard it as the work of someone who's not thinking straight.
Hugo Pool, 1997. R, for language and sex-related material. A Downey/Ligeti production, released by BMG Independents, in association with Northern Arts Entertainment. Director Robert Downey. Producer Barbara Ligeti. Screenplay by Robert Downey and Laura Downey. Cinematographer Joseph Montgomery. Editor Joe D'Augustine. Costumes Jocelyn F. Wright. Music Danilo Perez. Production design Lauren Gabor. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. Robert Downey Jr. as Franz Mazur. Malcolm McDowell as Henry Dugay. Cathy Moriarty as Minerva Dugay. Sean Penn as The Leprechaun. Alyssa Milano as Hugo Dugay.