At one point in Bryan Singer's original X-Men film, Wolverine stares at the fetishistic black-leather duds he and his teammates are wearing and asks, incredulously, "You actually go outside in these things?" To which Cyclops, in-joking on the character's original Marvel-comic attire, replies, "What, would you prefer yellow Spandex?" God, yes.
Despite my enormous fondness for the X-Men and Spider-Man works, I'm not sure if I've come to dread any film genre more than the Tormented Superhero Movie. Elektra, The Punisher, Catwoman, Hellboy ... is anybody actually enjoying these movies? Yeah, they look fine, in an MTV-on-downers kind of way, but they're generally so relentlessly grim - never more so than in their scenes of "comic relief" - and so incoherently plotted and assembled (at least to anyone outside the films' comic-reading fan base) that I fought the urge to nap during every single one of them. In the X-Men and Spider-Man movies, Bryan Singer, Sam Raimi, and their creative collaborators manage to inject lightness and conflicting moods into pretty standard Anguished Avenger material; the films work beautifully because they have variety. Yet despite those terrific contributions, the comic-book adaptation has, in recent years, become a mostly tiresome and plodding ordeal. Who cares if bad guys eventually take over the world when everything that happens on earth is so damned depressing?
Our latest entry in the genre is Constantine, based on the long-running comic Hellblazer. It's your basic supernatural-thriller gobbledygook: Our fallen hero, the demon-slaying exorcist John Constantine (Keanu Reeves), battles the forces of both evil and good in the hopes of eventual entry into heaven. (Aw, c'mon ... who doesn't?) As he inevitably must be, our protagonist is one Grumpy Gus, but his mood is lightened a tad by the arrival of a comely cop (Rachel Weisz) whose twin sister was either a suicide or - could it be? - a homicide perpetrated by demonic forces. And while Keanu and Rachel (equally morose) and a host of quirky character actors attempt to make sense out of the film's labyrinthine plotting and peer through all the gloomy visual design, we in the audience are silently screaming, "Would someone tell a joke, already?"
There are some memorable visuals. Sensing the arrival of one of Constantine's meaner meanies, an entire field of grazing cows - in the movie's most tickling, suggestive sequence - begins buckling and falling down dead as he approaches. At one point, Constantine battles a particularly unsettling CGI demon composed entirely of insects and worms, whose fluttering/slithering movements make up the features on its "face"; it's like a moving mosaic of evil. And there's a great, how'd-they-do-that? scene in which Pruitt Taylor Vince - sweaty and shifty-eyed, as per usual - smashes into a liquor store to quench the supernatural thirst that's killing him (don't ask), only to be denied liquid with every bottle he attempts to drink from. You might not necessarily understand or care about the relevance of the scene, but it's a terrific throwaway.
In sequences such as these, director Francis Lawrence really gets something going with Constantine - comic-booky horror and comedy doled out in equal, satisfying measure - and he elicits entertainingly stylized turns from a few of the film's supporting players, as well. Despite the annoying-lapdog nature of his role, Shia LaBeouf is, as usual, a fizzy comic presence; Djimon Hounsou uses his imperious tones to fine effect; Peter Stormare appears to be channeling Brando as Dr. Moreau and gives his Satan a garishly funny and over-the-top spin; and the angel Gabriel makes an appearance, so eccentric in his creepy/sexy androgyny that he is inevitably played by Tilda Swinton. (Though the angel gets to deliver the movie's sole laugh line, I'm pretty sure that Gabriel's immortal utterance "You're f??ed" doesn't show up anywhere in scripture.) With its occasional bursts of imagination and surprisingly inventive character turns, Constantine is by no means the bummer that so many of its genre cohabitants are; it's a comic-book adaptation you can watch without wanting to kill yourself. But the movie's moments of wit and variety are strictly that - moments - and they're not enough to overcome the work's incessant, stultifying humorlessness. A few years back, when X-Men made downbeat heroes exciting again, some of us were thrilled that gravitas had returned to the superhero genre. Less than five years later, a lot of us would be more than happy with yellow Spandex.
Few performers in American film are as purely, effortlessly charming as Laura Linney. She's radiantly pretty, and her subtle, subversive comedic talents make her all-American-girl veneer nearly intoxicating; she's one for whom the term "a breath of fresh air" was practically coined. Even when playing The Bitch in works such as Primal Fear, The Truman Show, and House of Mirth, Linney - with her naturalistic grace and fiery intelligence - elicits uncommon audience empathy; when her characters make their first onscreen appearance, you can feel the audience smiling right along with her. Since her memorable, back-to-back cameos in 1993's Dave and Searching for Bobby Fisher, Linney has been wonderful in Absolute Power; You Can Count on Me; The Mothman Prophecies; Love, Actually; Mystic River; Kinsey; and the Tales of the City movies for television (and, from what I understand, she single-handedly made Frasier's final season close to must-see TV), and it doesn't even feel like Hollywood has made proper use of her yet - every performance feels fresh and alive, but with the exception of the independent You Can Count on Me, movies don't quite seem to know what to do with her.
Getting to see Laura Linney in a big, starring role is such a rare treat I was really hoping that p.s. - just released on DVD and video - would triumph over its Birth-on-Lifetime premise, in which late-30s college-admittance advisor Louise Harrington (Linney) falls into a passionate affair with a young man 20 years her junior (Topher Grace), who just might be a reincarnated version of Louise's high-school boyfriend. But the movie is a mess. Writer-director Dylan Kidd, adapting a novel by Helen Schulman, gives the dialogue such stagy, italicized "punch" that sitting through it begins to feel endless, and none of the characters makes a lick of sense. Louise is so frighteningly self-involved as to be pathological (which, shockingly, no one makes mention of), Topher Grace looks positively bewildered as to what he's expected to bring to the movie, and characters played by Gabriel Byrne, Paul Rudd, and Linney's Mystic River ally Marcia Gay Harden all show up, drop bizarre pieces of information, and slither offscreen again. Refreshing as it is to see the sexes reversed in this May-December romance, p.s. itself is confused and unconvincing, and - I find myself surprised to be writing this - even the natural ebullience of Laura Linney can't quite salvage it.