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Movie Reviews : ‘Mr. North’ Misses Huston Pere’s Genius

Thornton Wilder’s last novel, “Theophilus North"--now filmed as “Mr. North” (Westside Pavilion)--was a piece of joyfully elaborate wish-fulfillment, an old man’s fond reverie-fantasy of the youth he would like to have lived, set in the green, glowing Newport, R. I., of his dreams. It’s about a youthful tutor from Wilder’s own hometown--Madison, Wis.--who fulfills his dearest fantasy-roles: as lover, rascal, saint, detective, magician, actor and free man.

The brilliant Theophilus (played in the film by Anthony Edwards) is a deceptively diffident warrior in Newport’s clashes of class and romance, moving easily between the servants--his natural friends--and the masters, whom he defeats or liberates. He’s the eternal outsider: charming all, bringing good and denying himself. (The movie gives him a romantic consummation; in the book, he was merely a matchmaker.)

Wilder was 73 when he wrote about this spry young alter-ego. “Mr. North’s” director, Danny Huston, is exactly Theophilus’ age (26). He is also son of the late John Huston, who helped prepare the film as co-scenarist, executive producer and prospective cast member, before his final illness.

And all through the movie, one misses him. One misses his physical presence, in the role he intended to play: elderly, incontinent, would-be philosopher-king, Mr. Bosworth. (This despite the elegant compensation of Huston’s old friend, Robert Mitchum, in the part.) One misses his wry exactitude and ironic control, his voice and his style.

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Perhaps this is because “Mr. North"--though initiated by Danny--seems clearly a John Huston-ish project. “Mr. North” is a film that demands high style, easy mastery and the kind of control so perfect you barely notice it. But, here, the younger Huston neither matches his father’s voice, nor gains his own.

It’s a beautifully set-up production. And one of its prime pleasures is simply the look of Newport itself: the ocean’s summer splendor, the baronial mansions set in their rolling, immaculate swards. But there’s a lack of finish, a tic in the ensemble. Even the construction seems shaky.

The cast is formidable, but the actors tend to relax into their personas rather than blend into the whole. You get a glimpse of Harry Dean Stanton’s tamped-in cynicism, of David Warner’s gangly fury, of Mitchum’s lizard-lidded majestic bluff. (Mitchum is also an imperviously healthy-looking “invalid.”) Lauren Bacall does a grand dame act, Tammy Grimes spouts campy fire and Virginia Madsen, sporting brunette curls and a brogue, teases the camera.

Threading through all of this, seemingly unable to tie it together, is Anthony Edwards. And, where Wilder’s Theophilus was a mixture of the innocent and all-triumphant, Edwards seems a soft, arrogant preppie, full of sass and static electricity: a minor Scott Fitzgerald-type unconsciously posing for a Leyendecker magazine cover.

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One of the hardest things for youth to grasp, or feign, is age’s perspective, particularly the way age sees youth. That’s why “Citizen Kane” is such a miracle. Danny Huston, who will probably make better films later, has an impossibly hard act to follow, an inimitable voice to mimic. So “Mr. North” (MPAA rated: PG) gives us styleless style, half-pleasures, almost-treats. Like old Thornton Wilder reimagining his youth, it’s a prisoner of what-might-have-been.

‘MR. NORTH’

A Samuel Goldwyn Co. release. Producers Steven Haft, Skip Steloff. Director Danny Huston. Executive producer John Huston. Co-producer Tom Shaw. Script Janet Roach, J. Huston, James Costigan. Camera Robin Vidgeon. Editor Roberto Silvi. Music David McHugh. Production design Eugene Lee. With Anthony Edwards, Robert Mitchum, Lauren Bacall, Harry Dean Stanton, Anjelica Huston, Mary Stuart Masterson, Virginia Madsen, Tammy Grimes, David Warner.

Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.

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MPAA rating: PG (parental guidance suggested; some material may not be suitable for children).


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