Rocker Jon Bon Jovi continues the careful building of his film career with “The Leading Man,” a witty English romantic comedy not likely to attract a large swath of his fans. It is nonetheless a shrewd artistic choice, one that shows just how easily he can command the screen in unexpected material for him.
The film’s modest booking suggests that the distributor and exhibitors are unsure how to play it; the best bet would probably be an art-house approach because its famous singing star sings nary a note.
Bon Jovi plays Robin Grange, a major Hollywood star who opts for a role in a serious London play and winds up showing how the West End is no match for West Coast smarts. Successful playwright Felix Webb (Lambert Wilson), heretofore ensconced for 14 years in one of the English theater’s perfect marriages (to Anna Galiena’s beautiful Elena), has become caught up in a passionate affair with Hilary (Thandie Newton), his play’s gorgeous ingenue.
Felix is too love-struck to be discreet, and his wife’s outrage and his lover’s growing impatience with him for not making a choice between her and Elena jeopardize the entire production. Felix is in such a state of escalating emotional turmoil he actually accepts Robin’s cool proposition that he create some space and diversion for him by seducing Elena.
“The whole thing is absurd,” remarks Felix, in one of his saner moments, but veteran Australian director John Duigan and his writer-sister Virginia are too clever to allow that judgment to be applied to their film. They have the knack of turning potential contrivance into effective dramatic convention the old-fashioned way: through attractive, well-developed characters whose plights involve us. It helps that they are played flawlessly by well-cast actors under Duigan’s customarily astute direction.
Sleek, leonine Robin just oozes confidence onstage and off. He knows just how dazzling a star’s megawatt concentration and charisma can be for a lovely but miserable woman. Robin is so far ahead of everyone in knowing how to play games, romantically and professionally, there’s just no telling where his romancing of Elena will go. And what are we to make of his attempt to seduce Hilary while he’s at it? There’s such charm and ambiguity of intention enveloping Robin you just can’t help but be intrigued.
The thorny situation allows two stunning and intelligent women to come to terms with themselves while Felix thrashes about in the throes of weakness and self-absorption. Wilson is such an accomplished actor that you come away with compassion for Felix if not exactly respect. The film’s ending is notably tart and ironic.
Always a man with a gift for the succinct phrase, Robin remarks that he plays a “hit man in a play about politics and morality,” and the glimpses we get of Felix’s play, which stars an urbane David Warner, suggest that the Australian Duigans are getting in a few deft digs at West End high seriousness.
The play’s director is a warm Barry Humphries, out of his famed Dame Edna Everage drag, and there’s an un-billed cameo by Nicole Kidman, who appeared with Newton in “Flirting,” one of Duigan’s best films. A handsome, polished effort, “The Leading Man” is a sly, traditional-style delight.
* MPAA rating: R, for some language and sexuality. Times guidelines: The film indeed has some steamy moments and blunt language.
‘The Leading Man’
Jon Bon Jovi: Robin Grange
Lambert Wilson: Felix Webb
Anna Galiena: Elena Webb
Thandie Newton: Hilary Rule
A BMG Independents release in association with Northern Arts Entertainment. Director John Duigan. Producers Bertil Ohlsson and Paul Raphael. Screenplay by Virginia Duigan. Cinematographer Jean-Francois Robin. Editor Humphrey Dixon. Costumes Rachel Fleming. Production designer Caroline Hanania. Art director Andrew Munro. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
* Exclusively at Mann’s Westwood, 1050 Gayley, Westwood, (310) 248-MANN, No. 155, or 777-FILM, No. 055; and Edwards’ University 6, Campus Drive opposite UCI, (714) 854-8811 or 777-FILM, No. 84.