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Burr Steers makes Igby the anti-Catcher in the Rye; Watts scores a TKO in "The Ring"

Death, Sometimes Misdirected 

Burr Steers makes Igby the anti-Catcher in the Rye; Watts scores a TKO in The Ring

There are a number of reasons to see The Ring. For those electrified by an unknown blond actress in last year's Mulholland Drive, first on the list will be the chance to see the follow-up performance of Naomi Watts.

In one of that film's most famous scenes, Watts' character astounds everyone, in both film and audience, with an inspired audition for a television show. In some ways the sequence mirrored the experiences of the Australian actress, who struggled in Hollywood for years before David Lynch cast her.

Perhaps it's not surprising. Based on the evidence so far, Watts projects an ironic, distant and somewhat creepy intelligence, one that may not play well with people who prefer the moist lovability of Julia Roberts, Cameron Diaz or Sandra Bullock. There's a chill about her, one rather reminiscent of Nicole Kidman--another actress more often admired than adored.

A hint of perverseness beneath her icy exterior, like the one Hitchcock found in Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren, must have drawn Lynch to Watts. While it's a fascinating quality, it's doesn't lend itself to the warm-and-fuzzies Hollywood likes to make. Instead of changing her image, Watts seems to be focusing on cool, cultish fare--an accurate description of The Ring.

The film opens with two teenage girls alone in a house, discussing a "killer videotape" that mysteriously brings death, seven days later, to all who watch it. The death notice, it's said, is delivered by telephone. Just as one girl confesses that she saw the video seven days earlier, the phone rings.

Yes, it is exactly the sort of scenario that was effectively skewered in Scream. But like Wes Craven before him, director Gore Verbinski knows such scenes never stop being scary. Still, after the genre-based winks and nudges of the first sequence come to an end, The Ring effectively reveals itself as a more adult film than those earlier post-pubescent blood offerings. By contrast, The Ring remains more eerie than flat-out scary, partly because cheap shocks are kept to a minimum, and partly because more attention is paid to atmosphere and character than in typical screamer fare.

Watts plays the tough and stylish Rachel Keller, a city reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the aunt of the unlucky girl in the opening scene. At her niece's wake, Rachel learns about the videotape--and learns that other teenagers also died at the same time, in other places. Such tips put her reportorial instincts into overdrive and she locates the video in a remote mountain vacation cabin.

Since Rachel is a cool rationalist who doesn't take talk of the curse seriously, she watches the video--which turns out to be a fairly innocuous surrealist piece, reminiscent of the Dali-designed dream sequences in Hitchcock's Spellbound. It doesn't spoil anything to reveal that as soon as she finishes watching the tape, the telephone rings.

What follows is a race against time to understand the hidden messages of the tape. There's very little blood in this horror film, with one notable exception. Instead of running and screaming, the embattled souls of The Ring spend much of their time twisting in cinematographer Bojan Bazelli's monochromatic landscape, buffeted by Hans Zimmer's dissonant score.

Many elements of the story aren't especially original--Lars von Trier's Kingdom is one film that The Ring resembles--and some mysteries are left unexplained in an aggressively untidy and enigmatic ending. Though it's not a great film, The Ring has more in common with artistic horror classics like Repulsion and Un Chien Andalou than I Know What You Did Last Summer, and will probably linger longer in the cinematic memory as a result.

The Ring, with its canny matching of genre and star, has a ready-made audience. By comparison, it's unclear who Burr Steers thinks his audience is for Igby Goes Down. Although his film has considerable wit, and is garnering some inevitable comparisons to Catcher in the Rye, it's unlikely that Salinger fans will ultimately take to it. It's unclear if anyone else will, either.

Salinger's Holden Caulfield was a fantasy of innocent rebellion and a model for generations of maudlin, navel-gazing teenagers. Igby, on the other hand, is a more unpleasantly realistic figure. He's a member of the Manhattan WASP aristocracy that, to this day, still clings to its musty co-ops despite the debilitations of alcohol, cocaine and spoiled, unemployable children.

One character in Igby wonders if a reverse Darwinism is at work, in which overcivilized people like Igby and his family are doomed to die out. In the world of this film, this is an urgent question.

Like Holden, Igby instinctively recoils from the complacency of his world. Unlike him, Igby is completely and proudly spoiled rotten. When he flees prep school for the pleasures of New York, Igby happily finances his decadence with his mother's credit card, while spewing contempt at her the entire time.

The relationship between him and his mother, Mimi (Susan Sarandon), is meant to be the emotional center of the film. Indeed, in the very first scene, we see Igby and his lupine older brother, Oliver (Ryan Phillippe) euthanizing her after she's stricken with cancer. Igby is surprisingly hostile and unaffected, and it's suggested that the movie to follow will explore this relationship.

As it turns out, we get a permanent condition of conflict, and very little productive interaction between the two. Instead, Igby gets invited out to the Hamptons by his godfather (Jeff Goldblum), where he hits on Rachel (Amanda Peet), his godfather's heroin-shooting mistress. Back in the city, Igby crashes with Rachel in the pad that his godfather maintains for her. Meanwhile, he pursues a relationship with Sookie (Claire Danes), an over-bored and self-assured pothead poet he also met in the Hamptons.

What elevates Igby to the level of Brett Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney--if not to the level of a good film--is that Steers, an actor making his directorial debut, knows these characters and has a lifetime of remembered wit to put into their mouths. At times, the dialogue has the nonstop brittle wit of Preston Sturges:

Igby: "My brother Oliver here majors in neo-fascism at Columbia--"

Oliver: "Economics!"

Igby: (shrugs) "Semantics."

Unfortunately, the supporting actors have clearly been instructed to play their parts as broadly as possible, thus off-setting the goodness of Igby and, for a time, Sookie. Jeff Goldblum overplays a role George Sanders would have nailed 50 years ago, puffing a fat cigar, pawing women and calling Igby "mah boy." Ryan Philippe employs a plummy faux-Eton accent that his Gosford Park character might have used and Jared Harris camps it up as a drug-dealing hanger-on.

All of this serves only to expose Steers' contempt for his characters. Only the redoubtable Susan Sarandon survives the acting directions, lending pathos to her harridan mother. Culkin, Danes and Bill Pullman (as Igby's father) are the only ones who approach their roles naturalistically. They're also the only ones we're allowed to like, though by the film's third act, when all loose ends are tied up in one preposterous swoop, we're well beyond caring. EndBlock

  • Burr Steers makes Igby the anti-Catcher in the Rye; Watts scores a TKO in "The Ring"

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