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Review: 'Beloved' is loud Oprah vehicle to Oscar

Web posted on: Tuesday, October 20, 1998 11:29:02 AM EDT

From reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Blasphemer that I am, I'd like to argue that Jonathan Demme's adaptation of Toni Morrison's award-winning novel, "Beloved," is one of the worst films of 1998. Understand what I'm saying, though. Obviously, a movie with this many talented people involved - if you've been trapped in amber, it stars and is produced by a sensitivity conglomerate named Oprah Winfrey - isn't going to be an embarrassment on the level of, say, "Tarzan and the Lost City." It is, however, completely possible for rabid enthusiasm towards the material to blind artists who've previously displayed a great deal of ability and taste.

If a guy who lives and breathes movies the way Martin Scorsese does can go belly-up by neglecting to notice that the withdrawn adventures of the Dalai Lama aren't in the least bit cinematic, then Demme and Winfrey can do the same thing by not noticing that Morrison's novel is the kind of overripe dreamscape that works best in the reader's imagination. The film version of "Beloved" is like "Sophie's Choice" fed on magical virgin's blood until it's ready to burst. And, believe me, it does, several times over.

Theatrical preview: "Beloved"

Windows Media: 28k or 56k
Real: 28k or 56k

Clip: "Hell here on earth"

Video clip: 2.2Mb QuickTime

I was a big fan of Demme's movies for more than a few years before he scored his critical and commercial coup with "The Silence of the Lambs" (which I happen to love), so I wasn't exactly laying in wait for him when I stepped into the theater to see "Beloved." Demme, like Winfrey, is an exceedingly straight-forward person, and I can understand why he was drawn to this book.

Moments of sanity

Proportionate to the number of films that we've seen about the Jewish Holocaust, we could use several more stories focusing on the unspeakable human tragedy of slavery in this country. But this screeching, grotesque display of shattered human dignity is about as subtle as five or ten thousand kicks in the head from a mule, with the kicks getting exceedingly baroque as the movie progresses. During the brief interludes when things calm down a bit, you savor the moment the same way you do when you've just turned off a lawn mower; the sudden silence feels like an unexpected return to sanity.

The movie is supposed to be (to a degree) about madness, but too often it simply seems like it was filmed by crazy people. Winfrey plays Sethe, a former slave whose house and mind are haunted by the ghost of one of her long-dead children. When I say that Sethe and her daughter, Denver (Kimberly Elise), live in a haunted house, I'm not overstating things. One early sequence consists of a spectral outburst that features rattling floorboards, flying dishware, scuttling tables, and a glowing red light that suggests the homestead is resting on the periphery of hell itself. It's so over-stylized you'd think the scene was cooked up by a bunch of Shriner's for the Halloween charity fund-raiser. Don't even get me started on the house-shake that opens the film, during which a patently phony-looking dog is tossed against a wall by an invisible force and has his eyeball knocked out onto his cheek.

Sethe refuses to abandon the house, for a variety of reasons that'll come into play as we learn more about her tragic past. (Considering the family's poverty, you'd think just the cost of forever replacing crockery would be enough to induce a move.) When Paul D (Danny Glover, genial as always), a long missing friend of Sethe's, returns to the place unexpectedly, it looks like things might finally be brightening up. Especially when the two become lovers. It doesn't take long, though, before even Paul D can't alleviate the death-vibe.

So, fasten your seatbelts -- here comes Beloved.

Very Important Film

One day a young black woman, dressed in exceedingly fine clothes, shows up in the front yard, leaning against a tree and snoring like a buzzsaw. This is Beloved (Thandie Newton, in a heroically grating performance), a childlike conglomeration of tics, bad table manners, and wordless yelps who's a less-than precise metaphor for something or other ... and fully embodies why this particular story is best left to a written word alchemist as sure-handed as Toni Morrison. The character is supposedly one big walking, gurgling secret, but (even if you haven't read the book) it's obvious after about three minutes who she really is. Then you're just left with what her infantile shenanigans are supposed to mean.

You see, this is a Very Important Film, and the idea that one of the main characters is a childish puzzle is raised up the flagpole and saluted every ten or so minutes to prove the point. Then you get a homily. Newton couldn't possibly win by playing Beloved the way she's been conceived. She's literally a grown-up baby who smears food all over her face, suddenly bursts into laughs or tears, and even makes ca-ca petticoat at one point. She's supposed to be shocking, and is, but a great many people in the theater couldn't help laughing at her Gerber-style histrionics. Newton carries herself like she needs a 24-hour intravenous Ritalin drip.

I hate to say it, but both Demme and Winfrey are responsible for this, and that's exactly why the movie will be nominated out the wazoo come Oscar time. Demme's pre-"Silence of the Lambs" films had a loopy, almost slapdash quality that reveled in his Roger Corman-inspired taste for rather vulgar Americana. He always showed a lot of heart, though. Films like "Handle With Care," "Melvin and Howard," and "Something Wild" are very forgiving works; Demme has a huge talent for finding a character's quirk and then convincing us that we should love the quirk as a symbol of uncompromising individuality. That's why Hannibal Lector, for all his meat-eating nastiness, became a cult hero. Demme always got the joke.

Winfrey is this year's 'Titanic'

So, here we are, post-Oscar haul, and the jokes are suddenly a distant memory. First we get the over-earnest (but, in theory, admirable) "Philadelphia," and now we have the just as theoretically-laudable "Beloved." Unfortunately, for all their honorable intentions, they're weak movies at best. And very bad movies at worst. Tack the ever-more self-deifying Winfrey onto this equation, and you're just asking for trouble.

I can see it coming already; Winfrey is this year's "Titanic." If "Beloved" receives even favorable reviews, I'll be terribly surprised if she doesn't walk away with Best Actress the next time they hand out those golden doorstops. She certainly does solid work as Sethe, but it's nothing to jump up and down about. Anybody who knows the score, though, realizes that doesn't matter.

Winfrey's ability to communicate with the unseen millions on a homey, grass-roots level is just about unequaled in the history of television. She's like an empowering Arthur Godfrey. She's also the first black woman to become a major influence in the world of entertainment, and she rightfully receives loads of praise for it. I salute it myself. The trouble is that, by now, the Oprah-obsessed out there are hanging on her every word and suggestion like veritable cult members. Lots of people are primed and ready to ascribe her with an integrity that only she (out there amongst the Hollywood heathens) supposedly possesses.

Well, I hate to ruin the moment, but that simply isn't true. In reality, her biggest accomplishment is the accumulation of all that might. Regardless of what many folks will think, "Beloved" is not an inarguable success simply because Winfrey managed to get it made. In fact, if you look twice, it's not much of a success at all. Remember to repeat that periodically as the groundswell builds, and look out if it breaks the $100 million mark at the box office. James Cameron may soon be sharing his throne with the Queen of the World.

"Beloved" is going to surprise a lot of people. There's awful violence, sexual abuse, full-frontal female nudity, vomiting, open-air urinating, etc. The music is particularly hammy, with lonely gospel singers telegraphing every "big" moment. Oprah got it right the first time -- read the book. Rated R. 174 fever-pitched minutes.

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