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Tommy Lee Jones: Lone Star in a Big 'House'

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 26, 2005; Page C05

"Man of the House" is a one-screen multiplex.

It's got a lot of small movies bouncing around inside it, but there's no big movie on the outside.

Let's see, there's a rogue-FBI-agent thriller.

Tommy Lee Jones takes down a college mascot as easily as he takes charge of "Man of the House." (Van Redin -- Columbia Pictures)

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Hmmm, there's the salty-old-guy-in-the-house-of-youth comedy.

Oh, and the cheerleaders-are-groovy-and-wise parable.

But what about the oldsters-fall-in-love drama?

And the African-American-minister musical?

And, finally, there's a dad-daughter-reconciliation number.

Familiar, all of them, but the one thing that qualifies "Man of the House" as unique is Tommy Lee Jones's face. Has this guy got a mug or what, and does the director, Stephen Herek, use it or what? It's really his only comic resource, that great, weathered deadpan with its fissures and arroyos graven into the flesh, its bags and crow's feet, its downward-thrusting eyebrows and its sad wisdom. Whenever Herek doesn't know what to do -- and that's frequently -- he cuts to Jones, radiating world-weariness with the aplomb of Fred Astaire, and it's always funny.

Jones is cast (brilliantly) as Roland Sharp, legendary Texas Ranger, and boy would I like to see Tommy Lee Jones in a real Texas Ranger movie. He looks great following the Ranger dress code, in jeans and boots, starched white shirt and black tie signifying the rigidity of his moral view, the cool star-in-circle badge, ivory-gripped .45 automatic in dressy gun belt and holster and enough hat to cover the Hill Country. We first meet Sharp expressing his invincibility by taking down a meth lab and capturing a bad boy without sweating a drop or missing a beat. He looks like Dirty Harry on steroids.

The bad guy, as it turns out, is a potential witness against a bigger bad guy and is quickly killed. By chance -- this sets up the movie -- the killer is seen by five University of Texas cheerleaders. The Rangers are charged with keeping them safe until the killer is caught, and thus Jones's Sharp moves into the off-campus Austin house where the cute young women live.

That is the first of many dislocations in "Man of the House." From a fairly violent modern urban thriller, it's just mutated, in the space of four minutes, into that cute cheerleader thang. The girls -- who could have guessed it? -- are spunky, sassy, restless, hormonally provoked, eager, funny and not about to listen to this old goat who pretends to have all the answers. Moreover, although the film is PG-13 rated, the girls insist on showing as much of themselves as is humanly possible without nudging into R territory, so we are very much situated on what might be called a navel installation.

It's all right. Jones has always had superb comic timing, and the young women -- Kelli Garner, Vanessa Ferlito, Monica Keena, Christina Milian and Paula Garces -- are intensely adorable. He finds their culture baffling and they find his annoying. The film isn't particularly respectful of cheerleading -- that's hard work and demands sublime athletic skills as well as Dentyne-perfect smiles and cute rear ends -- and its evocation of college life isn't very convincing. At the most basic level, though, this is the most enjoyable of the several movies that take over the screen.

But that movie disappears just as quickly as the urban thriller. Suddenly, for what has to be audience demographic reasons, we're in an African American church where Cedric the Entertainer is holding forth as a kind of voluble charlatan who was once a cheerleader himself, a direction that serves only to justify an otherwise extraneous scene in which the five cheerleaders show off their chops and the old devil responds with his, in a kind of ordeal by splits and cartwheel.

That movie vanishes quickly, too. The next one lugs in Anne Archer as a lit professor and love interest for Jones. Their eyebrows point in the same direction -- 45 degrees downward -- and match perfectly, so you know this relationship will prosper. But then her 15 minutes are over and the movie diverts to its fifth personality as a parenting essay, during which Jones the dad tries to rekindle a relationship with his estranged daughter (Shannon Marie Woodward).

Finally, the first movie -- bad guys, guns, bags of money -- makes a reappearance. By that time, you may not care. The many personalities of "Man of the House" have long since grown tiresome.

Man of the House (97 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for violence and sexual content.

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