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Shallow Grave 

Two new movies try to compensate for imagined superficiality with artificial depth

The Death of Cinema that we hear so much about now may really have started long ago, with the failure of 3-D. Of those films of the '50s that tried to compete with television by adding a third dimension to the movie screen, courtesy of awkward cardboard specs, none was particularly distinguished artistically. Hitchcock's 1955 Dial M for Murder was by far the best of them, because it played on the formal dialectic of surface and depth: The intrigues of the murderous husband in the film are haunted by the flaring depths, both spatial and emotional, he keeps trying to hide. The sad truth is, though, as Hitchcock knew above all, that movies are, simply, flat. This ineluctable truth seems to dog the movies, never more than in their periods of greatest superficiality, and two new films give us, now, two takes on shallowness.

One version unfolds in a scene in an observatory in K-PAX. We're looking up at an infinite sky, as astronomers enjoin a self-proclaimed alien to prove his mettle by charting the intricate course of the planets. He obliges, drawing ellipses this way and that on a computer screen, as if he were playing with a cosmic etch-a-sketch, and the lines appear in the sky above, reflected. It is then that we realize it's not the sky after all, but just another projection on another screen, like the very one on which we're watching the film.

Another version, from Shallow Hal, unfolds in a scene already made famous by the repetition-compulsion of previews-of-coming-attractions: Wispy Gwyneth Paltrow leaps into a pool and sends up a gargantuan splash. Presumably it's the pool's deep end, but to judge from the splash, it might as well be the shallow.

Both these films feature a current movie cliché: The action stops, and we watch, in an interlude, a cityscape in digital fast-motion--clouds racing across glassy skies, reflected in the metallic fronts of skyscrapers, or traffic whizzing past at time-lapsed speed. Depth can appear only in space, and over time--unstoppable, irreversible time. When time and space turn digital, depth recedes. We spend so much of our time these days staring at screens, it's no wonder we lose sight of the fact that there's nothing behind them, or that the depth we may still crave remains, as it always was, a relative quantity.

K-PAX sounds like the call letters of a West Coast public radio station, but in the new hit movie of that title, it's the name of a planet in a neighboring solar system, which Prot (Kevin Spacey), who may or may not be crazy, may or may not be from. K-PAX revives a sub-genre that flourished in the '60s and '70s, under the aegis of R.D. Laing, in movies like Morgan, King of Hearts, A Fine Madness, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, or Equus: Who's more crazy, these movies asked--the burdened sane, or the blissful mad? In one way or another these movies tend to equivocate in their answers to that question, and K-PAX is no exception. After flirting with the romance of dementia, the film can't quite work its way back to the realm of rationality.

Typically, the earlier flowering of this genre has been accounted for as adjunct to the emerging countercultures of those years. If that's so, then what brings the genre back now? I think K-PAX is best understood as a post- Tuesdays With Morrie exercise in pseudo-inspirational New Age babble, the usual effort to compensate for imagined superficiality with artificial depth. Like Mitch Albom's semi-literate best-seller, the film attempts to rationalize crass materialism. The rich therapist (Jeff Bridges) who ministers to Prot is unhappy despite his wealth. He has too many patients, the state's bottom line is insensitive to his administrative needs, and the trains out to Long Island are always late. His encounters with Prot, like Mitch's with sprightly, sagely Morrie, renew his faith. As long as he learns to see through the complacency of his wealth, conveniently, he need not feel guilty about it--though unlike hyper-sensitive Mitch, this therapist doesn't feel particularly guilty about it to begin with. Kevin Spacey's last hit, American Beauty, was about how to find existentialism in the suburbs; this one is about how to maintain one's soul and a healthy portfolio at the same time.

Early on, it's clear that Prot is a traumatized schizophrenic, the source of whose troubles Bridges makes it his business to explore, going so far as jumping a plane to New Mexico at the drop of a hat. Except to deflect our attentions from them, the film has little interest in human motivations, but its take on psychiatry boils down to two dimensions: drugs and hypnosis, one for the mind and one for the soul. (In this it has much in common with Instinct, the execrable Anthony Hopkins/Cuba Gooding Jr. movie it resembles in other ways as well.) According to the film, therapy is a form of white magic, tending to our minds while madness, matter and fate tend to our souls. Prot is the quintessential wise nutcase, and the film shows us that he's better off settling into madness than facing his pain. The film's shallowness derives from its conception of human psychology as a play between extreme surface and extreme depth, with nothing in between.

As Prot, Kevin Spacey alternates between robotic deadpan and breathless, quavery stream of consciousness. Like all of Spacey's film work, the performance is riddled with over-precise tics, carefully placed to suggest technical accomplishment (like Meryl Streep at her worst). He plays con artists whose composed surfaces never ruffle, or neurotics whose roiling depths never quite regain calm even when they, too, are performed with the same deadpan élan. If Spacey is the "serious" actor of the moment, it's because his style moves so abruptly from automatic outer gesture to extreme inner qualm. There's nothing between these poles because, in Spacey's agile, starchy technique, they're the same thing.

In Shallow Hal, a pared-down, reined-in Jack Black plays the title character, a shameless schlub who only dates supermodel look-alikes. This is despite what could be seen, speaking stereotypically, as his own squat, toad-like looks, on which the film does not significantly remark, since apparently only women need to measure up. The film's discretion on this point is especially striking because it's so uncharacteristic. Almost all the film's comedy comes from drawing very broad, stark distinctions between typologies of beauty and ugliness, with not much in between.

Stuck in an elevator with Inspirational Speaker Tony Robbins--a fate one would wish on nobody--Shallow Hal finds himself under a self-help spell that causes him to see past the surface to the inner qualities of people, and he then dates a series of women his best friend (Jason Alexander, no less) calls "dogs," but whom he sees, still, as supermodels. Until the spell is broken, we are meant to be able to tell at a glance who's "beautiful" and who's "ugly." Tony Robbins, apparently, is supposed to be beautiful, with his tidy hair, long digits, and pristine teeth. The film might have us believe it is trying to undermine such polarities through comic exaggeration, but if the basic idea has a saving grace, it lies in how unapologetically the premise is presented.

Fans of the Farrelly brothers, those low-brow Coens, may see this movie as tame. The impulse to body-fluid-oriented low comedy, in particular, has been curbed--nobody drinks piss and, probably to the disappointment of the many, discharged sperm is not comically recycled as hair gel. Like There's Something About Mary, the movie tries to temper its aggressive vulgarity with a quality of sweetness. But it's so small-minded that in conveying its woozy message that beauty is only skin deep, it has nothing to rely on but silly stereotypes. It's not surprising, of course, that the movie casts little doubt on clichés about beauty; in fact, what it tries to do is to purvey its skin-deep homilies precisely without upsetting those clichés, and that makes the infusions of sweetness a lot harder to take.

Still, the tastelessness of the enterprise, finally, isn't extravagant enough. The movie thinks it can get laughs just by turning the camera on what it presents as deformity, yet it retains a quality of reserve--it never goes wild and bolts into John Waters territory--so it can double back later and wring pathos from its own self-imposed grotesqueries. The basic comic principle is to cut between waifish, pretty Gwyneth Paltrow and either Gwyneth's unfortunate body double or Gwyneth herself, strutting about in one of those damn fat suits. (E! Channel will make much of how many hours she spent in the makeup chair.) The excruciation of watching her in this costume is not really so different from that of watching a white actor in blackface, and the level of the comedy is that of an obnoxious kid pointing, giggling, and shouting, "Look at the fat girl!"

The sensibility the movie as a whole expresses is a lot like the one that Hal starts out with: adolescent male, into fart jokes, but starting to sense that they might not get the girls, and sloppily sentimental after a beer or two. To make a shallow movie criticizing shallowness could be, in fact, a great comic idea--hostile and sour, worthy of late Preston Sturges--and it sometimes works even here. But for it to work all the way, the shallowness would have to be a conceit--not the real thing. EndBlock

  • "K-PAX" and "Shallow Hal" try to compensate for imagined superficiality with artificial depth.

More by James Morrison

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