Allow me a moment, if you will, to thank the folks at Moline's Nova 6 Cinemas for their continued efforts at occasionally booking more offbeat cinematic fare than the multiplex standard.
Since the theatre's renovation, Nova 6 has been the only venue in the Quad Cities willing or able to show a wide range of specialty films on the big screen: some spectacular (Ghost World, Hedwig & The Angry Inch, The Man Who Wasn't There), some flawed but interesting (The Anniversary Party, The Deep End), some very flawed but of some import nonetheless (Made, No Man's Land). Though the movies' runs are brief, Nova 6 is to be commended for allowing local audiences the chance to see works that, in film circles at least, have been widely discussed; it's not the theatre's fault if some of them, like the finally screened Iris, are borderline terrible. Curiosity about the film probably reached its apex when Jim Broadbent won his Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor a few weeks ago, but the movie itself is so muddled and unfocused that I'd call it the worst film to win an Oscar this year if Pearl Harbor hadn't received one, too.
The film's basic intentions are good. Iris strives to tell the story of revered British novelist and philosophy teacher Iris Murdoch and her suitor and eventual husband, the literary critic John Bayley, and the movie traces their lives together through two separate time frames - as youths, with the free-spirited Iris (Kate Winslet) learning to love the stuttering nebbish John (Hugh Bonneville), and as elders, where Murdoch (now played by Judi Dench) suffers from the ravages of Alzheimer's, causing confusion and grief for her long-suffering spouse (Broadbent). The film, which is based on two Murdoch memoirs written by her husband, would be effective in its design if not for one insurmountable problem: After ninety minutes of Iris, we still have no idea who these people are.
How do you make a movie about a writer and manage to omit every detail of the writing process? From what Iris presents, you'd think that the young Murdoch was little more than an exhibitionist bisexual who talked a good game and enjoyed throwing poor, hapless Bayley for a loop with her Modern Woman attitudes. You hear a bit about her writing - which the vague screenplay (by Charles Wood and the film's director, Richard Eyre) describes as something about the wonderful strangeness of human beings - but her life's work feels completely inconsequential to the story Iris is telling; perhaps the filmmakers assumed we were all so well-versed in the Murdoch mythology that piddling details, like what she wrote and how, were meaningless. The only thing that links the character to the literary world is the steely intelligence in Kate Winslet's eyes, but this woman could just as easily have been a painter or a politician; we know as much about the fruition of Iris Murdoch's career at the end as at the beginning. (It's as if the filmmakers behind A Beautiful Mind simply told us that John Nash was a mathematician, and then mysterious men in fedoras starting appearing out of nowhere.) Similarly, the film's view of John Bayley is almost offensively simple-minded. In his youthful scenes he comes across as a complete sycophant, catering to Iris' every whim because he's simultaneously captivated by and terrified of her sexuality. Bonneville plays John's puppy-dog yearning endearingly enough, but the character never seems more than a simp, and when Broadbent takes over the role, as the sort of doddering gramps who can't find his slippers without help, Bayley seems more paralyzed than his disease-stricken wife. (Quite possibly this is how Bayley actually saw himself when writing his Iris memoirs, but it does the movie little good to share that viewpoint.)
Since it shows so little interest in Murdoch's writing and her intellectual rapport with Bayley, Iris must then be primarily about the horrors of Alzheimer's, especially in how the disease affects a once-brilliant mind. And yes, the scenes of the elder Iris not recognizing friends and family, wandering into traffic, and urinating in the living room are ineffably sad. How could they not be? Yet the film's editing, which continually flip-flops between Iris and John through the decades, makes it impossible to feel any sense of escalating tragedy; just when Dench and Broadbent are achieving a performance rhythm and vividly recreating their struggle we're back with Winslet cavorting in a lake and Bonneville complaining about her infidelity; the movie seems to have Alzheimer's. You can't fault Dench's performance, and though Broadbent is too often directed to play Lovable Old Fool, he stays in character admirably; their work is the only possible reason to see the film. (And, for many a worshipper at the shrine of Judi Dench, that will be reason enough.) But Iris, the movie, continually hampers them. It gives you no understanding of its characters' lives, no fresh insights, and nothing to take with you except the knowledge that Alzheimer's is devastating to those who suffer from it and those who live in its periphery; it's an important subject, to be sure, but one that deserves a more cogent vessel than Iris.
LIFE OR SOMETHING LIKE IT
Thank God for Stockard Channing. She has only about five minutes of screen time in the last reel of the drippy Angelina Jolie vehicle Life or Something Like It, but the promise of her arrival is almost enough to keep you alert during the ninety minutes that precede her. Yet another entry in the seemingly ceaseless parade of Stop & Smell the Roses pictures, the film features Jolie as Lanie Kerrigan, a morning-news reporter who longs for a better job and more respect, but who is forced to reevaluate her life when - oh, Hollywood! - a street prophet (Tony Shalhoub) tells her she's going to die in a week. Are status and career success more important than Having a Life? Should Lanie ditch her emotionally unavailable fiancé and go for the scruffy cameraman (the deadly dull Edward Burns) who loves her? Do we care? The movie, indifferently performed and wretchedly written and directed (the scene of Lanie leading striking union workers in a rendition of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" will make you want to hide under your theatre seat), is notable only for Channing's brief portrayal of the famed news anchor Lanie strives to be. Focused and raw, Channing seems like the only human being in this bizarro fairy-tale world, and what happens? Lanie publicly humiliates Channing's character for her success at the expense of deeper values. Life or Something Like It is worthwhile only for one moment that directly follows: Channing's expression, where you can see just how much she wants to sock Lanie, and probably her own agent, in the mouth.