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MOVIE REVIEW : The Roar of the Cat, Whimper of the Bat

TIMES FILM CRITIC

A woman’s fingers are gnawed until they bleed by a pack of ravenous stray cats. A man’s nose is nearly bitten off in a sneak attack by a fish-eating humanoid. Circus clowns open fire on hapless civilians and women are periodically thrown to their death.

Welcome to Tim’s World.

Are we having fun yet?

“Batman Returns,” the most eagerly awaited and aggressively hyped film of the summer, is, for better and worse, very much the product of director Tim Burton’s morose imagination. His dark, melancholy vision is undeniably something to see, but it is a claustrophobic conception, not an expansive one, oppressive rather than exhilarating, and it strangles almost all the enjoyment out of this movie without half trying. The result is a cheerless, brooding but always visually inventive film, more or less what you might expect if Ingmar Bergman had directed “The Addams Family.”

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The only exception to the overall doom and gloom is Michelle Pfeiffer’s stylish and funny performance as the frumpy Selina Kyle and her alter ego, the whip-cracking gender-bending Catwoman. The energy and pizazz Pfeiffer brings to the dual role is both a hint of the pleasure “Batman Returns” (citywide, rated PG-13) might have provided and a rebuke to the overall air of glum severity that a sophomoric, pseudo-jokey script unsuccessfully attempts to relieve.

In a curious way, the off-center focus of this film is primarily due to the fact that the box-office success of its predecessor, the 1989 “Batman,” was both enormous (the fastest film ever to hit the $100-million mark; $251 million in receipts all told) and difficult to pin down.

Did that “Batman” earn all its money because of the late Anton Furst’s impressive production design, Jack Nicholson’s over-the-top antics as the Joker, Burton’s directorial sensibility, an expertly executed ad campaign, or merely the film’s good fortune to appear just when the public, in a curious prefiguration of the Ross Perot bandwagon, was ready to embrace a wealthy, plain-speaking businessman with a cut-to-the-chase approach to solving society’s problems?

Whatever the reason, when Warner Bros. came to making the inevitable sequel, the only card available for it to bet on was Burton’s. And so, in one of those curious obeisances to one man’s creative vision that Hollywood falls prey to every now and again, a $55-million budget was entrusted, no strings attached, to the very particular preoccupations of a very curious director.

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Burton, whose affinity for the offbeat was evident not only in the first “Batman” but also in “Beetlejuice” and “Edward Scissorhands,” is undeniably a major visual talent who glories in the creation of artificial worlds. Expertly aided and abetted by production designer Bo Welch, he has come up with a singular look for this film, a (what else but) dark fantasy of Gotham City as a dreary urban enclave, overwhelmed by neo-totalitarian statuary and riddled with hidden, sinister caverns.

There is nominally a plot to go along with all these splendid visuals, story by Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm, screenplay by Waters, but Burton, preoccupied by all that expensive, painstakingly created ambiance, doesn’t seem much interested in puny narrative, and given the lackluster quality of the script, it is not hard to see why.

As if to make up for the Joker’s absence, Batman is given not one or two but three adversaries to tussle with, and rather than taking the trouble to follow any kind of coherent line, “Batman Returns” merely switches focus from one to the other to the other until enough time has elapsed for the credits to roll.

The most sinister adversary is the Penguin, half man, half bird, tossed out like yesterday’s trash by his horrified parents (one of whom is Paul Reubens, a.k.a. Pee-wee Herman) and raised to maturity by more understanding creatures. A stringy-haired Danny DeVito has this role, looking very much like a demented, overweight Tiny Tim, and though no trouble has been spared to make this Penguin look as grotesque as possible, very little has been done to make his character involving, with predictable results.

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The most human opponent is the odious Max Shreck, Gotham City’s leading citizen and a big booster of a polluting power plant no one needs and only Shreck will profit from. With swept-back white hair and a huffy manner, Christopher Walken doesn’t seem to be in the same movie as anyone else, merely a visitor to the set from some other, less interesting production.

Pfeiffer as Catwoman, is, as noted, also in her own movie, but this one is a treat. Clearly relishing both sides of her role, the pathetic office assistant and the sleek, sexy superheroine, she manages to look natural in her leather and latex dominatrix outfit, and whatever funny lines the script has belong mostly to her. “It’s the batman,” she says, dumbfounded, on meeting the great man for the first time. “Or is it just Batman?”

Regrettably, the script for “Batman Returns” is by and large not this clever, having in its artificiality and forced archness more in common with Daniel Waters’ unhappy work on “Hudson Hawk” than what he did on the legendary “Heathers.” In theory, the incessant banter was probably intended as a humorous counterpoint to Burton’s somber tones, but, unless jokes like Catwoman being saved from a nasty fall by a truckload of Kitty Litter is your idea of wit, it just didn’t work out that way.

If the underutilized Michael Keaton looked unhappy in the first “Batman,” he seems even more so now, and it takes an act of will to remember that he made his reputation as a talented comic actor.

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Not surprisingly, the scenes Bruce Wayne/Batman shares with Selina Kyle/Catwoman are his and the film’s liveliest, but this is no great boast. “Batman Returns” may be the proverbial feast for the eyes, but Tim Burton’s Toys R Us style of filmmaking leaves us hungry for something, anything more.

‘Batman Returns’

Michael Keaton: Batman/Bruce Wayne

Danny DeVito: Penguin

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Michelle Pfeiffer: Catwoman/Selina Kyle

Christopher Walken: Max Shreck

Michael Gough: Alfred

Michael Murphy: Mayor

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Cristi Conaway: Ice Princess

Released by Warner Bros. Director Tim Burton. Producers Denise Di Novi, Tim Burton. Executive producers Jon Peters, Peter Guber, Benjamin Melniker, Michael Uslan. Screenplay Daniel Waters. Story Daniel Waters, Sam Hamm. Cinematographer Stefan Czapsky. Editor Chris Lebenzon. Costumes Bob Rigwood & Mary Vogt. Music Danny Elfman. Production design Bo Welch. Art director Rick Heinrichs. Set decorator Cheryl Carasik. Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG-13.


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