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For the '90's, Lowered 'Expectations'

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 30, 1998

  Movie Critic

Great Expectations Ethan Hawke desires Gwyneth Paltrow in "Great Expectations." (20th Century Fox)

Alfonso Cuaron
Gwyneth Paltrow;
Ethan Hawke;
Hank Azaria;
Chris Cooper;
Anne Bancroft;
Robert De Niro;
Josh Mostel
Running Time:
1 hour, 52 minutes
Under 17 restricted

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"Great Expectations" is hardly a real pip (indeed, it has been rendered Pip-less), but then this loosey-goosey adaptation isn't aimed at those of us with library cards.

The slight, visually seductive update aims to do for the Dickens tome what "Clueless" did for Jane Austen's "Emma" and "William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet" did for the Bard.

Young romantics no longer need plow through thickets of prose, or even Cliffs Notes, to partake of the classics. Once more Hollywood comes to the rescue of a generation suckled on the boob tube. Never mind that the resulting story is as bare of meat as the novelist's old bones and its characters as pat as the starving children who hawk perfumes.

Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays Estella opposite Ethan Hawke's Pip (herein known as Finn), is also physically just as thin as the aforementioned ad urchins. And Hawke, now a love-struck artist from Florida's Gulf Coast, just can't seem to forget her . . . her Wind Song stays on his mind.

Finn is still a boy when he becomes obsessed with Estella, the 11-year-old ward of a wealthy recluse, Miss Dinsmoor (bizarro Anne Bancroft). The two meet at the behest of the conniving dowager, who summons Finn to her crumbling mansion for weekly visits with emotionally distant girl. Little does the poor orphan boy know that he's part of the artful codger's scheme to get back at men, all because she was left standing at the altar 30 years earlier.

Just as she planned, Finn is smitten with Estella from the start. An aspiring artist, he has found his muse and sketches her portrait on the spot. By the time he's a teenager, his bedroom is papered with his drawings of her. Then as rich girls will, Estella goes off to a French boarding school and Finn loses the will to sketch, puts down his charcoal and picks up a fishing pole.

But like Harry and Sally, the couple bump into each other again and again as grown-ups. With the financial backing of a mysterious benefactor, Finn has moved to New York, where he has rediscovered his passion for drawing and is working on an upcoming show. Estella once again poses for him, only this time it's in the nude.

The orgy of posing and sketching that follows brings new meaning to the term "pop art" but sheds no further light on what besides lust and Miss Dinsmoor draws the two together.

Writer Mitch Glazer managed to turn "A Christmas Carol" into "Scrooged" without losing sight of Dickens's redemptive theme. But the strictures of class and gender that drive "Great Expectations" don't time-travel well, nor do the characters, whose behavior is without motivation in this day and age.

Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, whose flair for ravishing imagery was so evident in 1995's "The Little Princess," tries to camouflage the picture's shortcomings with magical settings and alluring situations. Even people whose lips move when they read will notice the absence of meaning.    

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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