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Review: What the Dickens is 'Great Expectations'?

Graphic From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- It seems to me that style, by definition, is not something that needs to be labored over. Sure, when it comes to clothes people do it every day; sometimes it's the only way they can establish what they consider to be an attractive persona.

The exact opposite applies in the arts, though. An artist can break his back to properly illustrate his perspective -- his longings, thoughts and desires -- but real artistic style is a natural grace that guides that perspective. When things get flip-flopped and the perspective actually consists of a self-conscious sense of what supposed to be "stylish," things can get hollow and downright embarrassing.

Case in point -- director Alfonso Cuaron's "Great Expectations," a movie that's so concerned with looking good, it quickly becomes a love letter to the elaborate, unmotivated camera gyration. It's sorta kinda an update of the Charles Dickens novel, but it's Dickens filtered through Adrian Lyne and Bruce Weber. Considering how obsessed Cuaron is with Gwyneth Paltrow's willowy figure (or Ethan Hawke just as obsessively drawing pictures of it), it might have been a better idea to slap together a photo spread for "Vogue" instead of wasting all that time and money making a movie.

The establishing notions of the story are pretty much the only parts that can be directly identified as belonging to the mind of Charles Dickens. Nobody is running around covered in soot or selling children to the circus. Granted, Robert DeNiro is pretty disheveled at one point, but even that smacks of pre-conceived grooviness, as if escaping from prison were the next best thing to starring in a Duran Duran video.

Hawke plays Finn ("Pip" in the novel) a young guy who lives in Florida with his sister and fisherman "uncle" (Chris Cooper). For those of you who've erased high school from your memory, this is the story of the kid who gives a hand to an escaped convict, then receives the financial assistance of a mysterious benefactor as he grows older. He assumes the benefactor is the nutty old dame (Anne Bancroft in this case) who's been paying him for several years to come over on weekends and play with her niece.

"Great Expectations"
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In the movie, the niece grows up to be Paltrow, and I think this is the definition of "nice work if you can get it." If anybody out there wants me to spend a few years' worth of weekends playing with this woman, all I'll require is an occasional sandwich. If you can talk Naomi Campbell into it, I'll pay you.

The voice-over makes it clear that what we're seeing is how Finn remembers the story, not the way it actually happened. I have to wonder, though, exactly how the adult Hawke could recall DeNiro's convict rising out of the vast ocean like the Creature from the Black Lagoon and grabbing him around the throat. Then, when the terrified kid runs off to get the jailbird his food and bolt-cutters, the guy just ducks back under water. This doesn't strike me as a person who needs help escaping from anybody. At least Dickens drew the line at writing characters with gills.

The real meat of the story (although it's been pounded as thin as a schnitzel) is that Bancroft has seen to it that Hawke will fall madly in love with Paltrow, just so her distant beauty can break the young man's heart. Bancroft is supposed to be vengeful, permanently stung by the fact that she was stood up at the altar 30 years earlier, but her performance is so loopy you never think she's anything but drunk on tee many martoonis. They've loaded pounds of grotesque pancake makeup on her, and she often spends her time dancing a solo rhumba to about 50 different versions of "Besame Mucho." (She also, when especially delighted, likes to say "Chick-a-boom.") It's too awful to be truly camp. Bancroft isn't acting; she's horsing around. At least this finally explains her continuing marriage to Mel Brooks.

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Hawke's character is a painter, so he winds up heading to New York and becoming the talk of the SoHo art scene. His muse over the years has been his memory of Paltrow and her wispy dresses. This accounts for his hyperventilating when she suddenly appears again in New York, ready to pose nude and pretend to love him, but not really, and after a while you start getting sick to death of her. Paltrow's performance is a classic dangling pork chop that gets whisked away to the kitchen every time Hawke tries to dig in. She's never looked this beautiful, but she's a far better actress than the role deserves. Why get a smart, sophisticated woman to play-act vacuousness when there's so much actual vacuousness ripe for the picking in the greater Los Angeles area?

This is all secondary, however, to Cuaron's histrionic camera technique. The theory seems to be that basic setups focusing on actors delivering honest emotions are too old fashioned for something this hot-diggity. Why not play out the scenes with 6 or 7 lap dissolves, a canted angle, and 9 or 10 unnecessary crosscuts? Hawke's oddly breathless performance is probably the result of too many technicians running around the room while he's trying to act. Audiences, just like actors, need to be able to focus if anything of value is going to be accomplished in telling a story on film.

"Great Expectations" contains profanity and some fleeting glimpses of nudity. If you know of a theater that has matinee prices and you harbor a crush on Gwyneth Paltrow, it may be worth your time. Just bring something to bite on. CLICHÉ WARNING: Kissing in the rain. Rated R. 115 minutes.


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