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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Beauty’: A Comedy in the Screwball Tradition

TIMES FILM CRITIC

Actor John Malkovich may not have any trouble getting hired, but no one seems particularly eager to give the poor man an actual job.

In “Dangerous Liaisons,” director Stephen Frears cast him as an aristocrat so effete he couldn’t manage to put his clothes on without serious help. In “The Sheltering Sky,” he was a bored aesthete who appeared bound and determined to die of sheer ennui before a more graphic malady saved him the trouble. And now, in “The Object of Beauty,” an elegant farce written and directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, he plays Jake, an Armani-clad gentleman whose idea of a hard day’s work is trying to sell his vintage Cartier watch.

The reason someone like Jake is selling rather than buying a Cartier is that, not to put too fine a point on it, the man is stone cold broke. Never mind that he and his lady Tina (Andie MacDowell) are encamped in one of London’s pricier hotels, that they eat only in the choicest restaurants and couldn’t be bothered to so much as boil an egg for themselves.

The problem, you understand, is that all Jake’s money is tied up in cocoa, and dock strikers in Sierra Leone have not only immobilized the stuff, they are threatening to use it in their own version of the Boston Tea Party. Meanwhile, bills are piling up, credit cards are maxing out, bankers and hotel managers are losing patience, and Jake is reduced to discreetly crossing himself when he pulls out his Gold Card. As he later haughtily whines to Tina (as only Malkovich can), “What do these people want, my spleen?”

But wait, all is not lost. Tina has in her possession what she familiarly calls “my little Henry Moore,” a small but valuable sculpture that was a gift from her not-quite-ex husband (a nice cameo by Peter Riegert). They could sell it, Jake suggests, and their troubles would be over. They could pretend it was stolen, Tina slyly counter-suggests, and get well with the insurance money. Jake is intrigued (“Prison is one way of cutting down our hotel bills,” he admits), but before they can sort out these unfamiliar ethical questions, the statue in question simply vanishes from that very expensive hotel room and the fun begins in earnest.

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At first, frankly, “The Object of Beauty” (at selected theaters) is not as much fun as you might expect it to be. While we want to be bemused by Jake and Tina’s antics, we can’t escape the fact that they are shallow and manipulative creatures and their terminal self-absorption, not to mention their coy sex games, are more irritating then amusing. When the Moore takes a powder, Jake and Tina naturally suspect each other, and their not-very-solid relationship deteriorates into a sea of bickering that is only marginally more unpleasant than watching the two of them in love.

But writer-director Lindsay-Hogg, a man with considerable stage experience who is probably best known in this country as the co-director of the “Brideshead Revisited” miniseries, turns out to be weaving a more complex web than is initially apparent, and “The Object of Beauty” (rated R for language) ends up having more to offer both the audience and Tina and Jake than either we or they suspect.

For one thing, though they aren’t sure what happened to the statue, we are in a more fortunate position, and the piece’s peregrinations form a nice counterbalance to the couple’s antics, quietly making points about exactly what beauty is and who is fit to appreciate it.

Also, it soon becomes clear that, judging by the merciless way Lindsay-Hogg lets them dangle in the wind, Jake and Tina may not be the writer-director’s favorite people either. And, in fact, the lower they sink, the deeper into trouble they get, the more enjoyable “The Object of Beauty” becomes. Uncharitable as it may sound, we enjoy seeing Jake and Tina squirm, and in true Hollywood screwball tradition, the more desperate their predicament becomes, the more we are likely to laugh at it while waiting for the inevitable resolution to take shape.

This is especially true with Malkovich’s Jake. While, as noted, this kind of role is not exactly new to him, with his cool hauteur and astonishing self-possession, Malkovich can play the charming but shiftless snake with so much style that you understand exactly what Eve was up against in the Garden of Eden. What is different here, especially after the suffocating lugubriousness of “The Sheltering Sky,” is that Jake is played largely--and successfully--for laughs. Listening to Malkovich put the most arch twist on the most innocent words is a special kind of pleasure, and one that we don’t seem to get very often.

While it may be inevitable that whoever plays Tina won’t shine as brightly as Jake, it is a bit of a pity that the non-scintillating Andie MacDowell, who has done solid work in films like “sex, lies, and videotape” and “Green Card,” where she played women with more demure surfaces, got the role. She doesn’t quite get in the spirit of things (especially when compared to such veteran farceurs as Joss Ackland as the hotel manager and Bill Paterson as his flunky) and her serious scenes don’t always match those of either Lolita Davidovich as her best friend or the luminous Rudi Davis as a hotel employee. Still, even she has her moments, and watching Tina absent-mindedly eat the bread crumbs she’d intended to feed to Hyde Park’s swans is to know that the go-go years are gone for good.

‘The Object of Beauty’

John Malkovich: Jake

Andie MacDowell: Tina

Lolita Davidovich: Joan

Rudi Davies: Jenny

Joss Ackland: Mr. Mercer

Bill Paterson: Victor Swayle

A BBC Films presentation of a Jon S. Denny production, released by Avenue Pictures. Written and directeds by Michael Lindsay-Hogg. Producer Jon S. Denny. Executive producer Cary Brokaw. Cinematographer David Watkin. Editor Ruth Foster. Costumes Les Lansdown. Music Tom Bahler. Production design Derek Dodd. Running time 1 hour, 50 minutes.

MPAA rated R (language).


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