Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's SpeechTHE KING'S SPEECH

A tony odd-couple comedy in the guise of a historical prestige pic, The King's Speech boasts a pair of exceptional performances by Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, and is a terrific amount of fun. But am I alone in thinking that its central storyline is the least interesting thing about it?

As director Tom Hooper's 1930s-set tale opens, Firth's Prince Albert - the future King George VI - is forced to give a proclamation in front of throngs of onlookers, and it's clear that the petrified man's debilitating stammer will disastrously impede his ability to rule. Sensing this, his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) - the future Queen Mum - seeks out the services of Rush's Lionel Logue, an eccentric speech therapist who agrees to aid her husband, but only in his own bourgeois digs, and without being encumbered by royal formalities. The monarchs acquiesce, and even if you know absolutely nothing about British history, there's no question what will happen next: After a rocky start, Albert will learn to control his stutter, the men's initially wary relationship will morph into a deep friendship, and the film will climax with the now-king giving a triumphant speech uniting the British people. Cue the tears and applause, roll the credits, and hand Firth his Oscar.

Screenwriter David Seidler does provide diversions along The King's Speech's programmatic journey; an especially explosive verbal duel results when Logue deigns to lounge on Albert's chair in Westminster Abbey, and there's a great, funny scene in which Albert's tongue is loosened through a recitation of expletives. But even those sequences are somewhat too sitcom-cute for comfort, each of Albert's and Logue's expected stumbling blocks - especially the fait accompli moment in which the therapist is (briefly) fired - appears right on schedule, and many of Seidler's witticisms are so stagey that you can practically see the proscenium arch built around his more biting throwaways. (Says Albert to his brother, "We're not a family; we're a firm.")

It's entirely to Firth's and Rush's credit, though, that you barely mind the movie's frequent obviousness. Offering a subtly powerful portrayal, Firth digs so deeply into Albert's troubled soul that the actor's technical virtuosity barely calls attention to itself; from his ruler's first mortifying minutes on-screen, you find yourself hanging onto Firth's every slowly elocuted word. And Rush, with his alert, ingratiating confidence, partners him flawlessly. The film's cast features an insanely intimidating bevy of talent (Michael Gambon, Guy Pearce, Derek Jacobi, Timothy Spall, Jennifer Ehle, Claire Bloom), yet even if The King's Speech were re-designed for Firth and Rush as a two-character piece, it's hard to imagine many viewers leaving disappointed.

How much richer would Hooper's film have been, though, if its Good King Hunting plotline were merely one of several? Hovering around Firth and Rush are numerous sequences that suggest a juicier, more unpredictable work than the one we're watching: Albert's father (Gambon) bullying his son, and as he nears death, relinquishing his power with haunted terror; Albert's supercilious brother, David (Pearce), assuming the throne and quickly abdicating it to marry the already married American he loves; Albert negotiating the politics behind his country's eventual immersion in World War II. Yet in the end, even the threat of war is viewed as a petty nuisance compared to the question of whether Britan's ruler will get out a full sentence on live radio. I left The King's Speech thinking it a charming, engaging, well-acted feel-good movie. The question lingers: Shouldn't it have been more?


Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro in Little FockersLITTLE FOCKERS

Given its title, you'd think that director Paul Weitz's Little Fockers - the wholly unnecessary, unfunny sequel to 2000's Meet the Parents and 2004's Meet the Fockers - would be at least mildly concerned with the comic rigors of parenting. The fact that it doesn't, that it all but forgets that the little Fockers are even there, might be the movie's only real surprise. A torturous "family" slapstick with a rather disturbing predilection for boner jokes, the movie is an obscene waste of time and energy that finds Ben Stiller, Teri Polo, Owen Wilson, Blythe Danner, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Steisand, Laura Dern, and Tom McCarthy fighting, and losing, a battle with fourth-rate material. And let's not even talk about the scene that finds Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel barking over the construction of an in-ground swimming pool. Somewhere, Martin Scorsese is weeping.


Jack Black in Gulliver's TravelsGULLIVER'S TRAVELS

I love Jack Black, so let's quickly pass over the kiddie-flick nightmare of Gulliver's Travels, a Swift-ian kick in the ass that could only feature lamer gags, lazier plotting, more witless sentiment, and more amateurish green-screen effects if it were crafted by actual kiddies. Suffice it to say that when I saw the film - which also humiliates Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Amanda Peet, Chris O'Dowd, and Billy Connolly at every turn - it was preceded by four previews and then a big-screen commercial for Friskies cat food. (In 3D!) I would've been offended by the product-hawking if those 30 seconds weren't infinitely more enjoyable than the movie.

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