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‘Mr. North’ (PG)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 05, 1988

Even if "Mr. North" were not the last film project in which John Huston was involved, it's likely that we would have nurturing feelings toward it. Directed by Danny Huston, the late filmmaker's son, it's the sort of modest affair -- literate, personal, out of sync with its time -- that attracts champions, especially during a season of pyrotechnic dervishes. And it would be profoundly satisfying if the film were worthy of all this good will. Sadly, it is not.

"Mr. North," which John Huston, Janet Roach and James Costigan adapted from a novel by Thornton Wilder, starts out small and seems to get tinier and tinier with each passing minute. Set in Newport, R.I., in 1926, it follows the adventures of Theophilus North, who, at least as conceived, is a rascal. North's aspirations change with his moods; at one moment he fancies himself a detective, the next an actor, a saint or an archeologist. On his arrival in town, though, he must content himself with a variety of less glamorous odd jobs -- dishwasher, tennis instructor and a paid reader to the sick and elderly -- all of which involve him in the life of the town and its people.

One of North's odder talents -- the tiny electrical shocks he dispenses as a result of the static electricity accumulated in his body -- attracts special attention. After the news spreads that his touch has helped a young woman suffering from migraines (Mary Stuart Masterson), he is besieged by people looking for miracle cures. Trouble also results from his meddling in the medical affairs of one of his employers, James McHenry Bosworth (Robert Mitchum), an infirm multimillionaire held hostage by his bladder and conspired against by his daughter (Tammy Grimes) and her repellent lover, Dr. Angus MacPherson (David Warner).

Accused of practicing medicine without a license, North is put on trial, but by this point Huston's inability to give the scenes any tension or to convey the significance of North's contact with numerous minor characters has alienated our interest in the outcome. The material has a quaint appeal, and it's easy to feel nostalgic for this time in America when everything seemed wide open and servant girls could marry millionaires. But easy nostalgia is about all the movie generates. The film has the untextured look of a Disney Sunday movie, and Huston's style is unemphatic to the point of being soporific.

But the fatal fault is in the casting of the film's lead. The singular North is portrayed by the dime-a-dozen actor Anthony Edwards. Edwards is too insubstantial to convey anything other than boyish affability; he's dimensionless, both as a camera subject and as an actor. After three minutes, maybe less, you've used up your interest in him.

The other actors aren't actually bad, but they're not actually good either. Harry Dean Stanton plays the gentleman's gentleman Henry Simmons with some relish, but the revelation that he's from Chicago, not London as he's pretended to be, seems merely a contrivance to explain the actor's woefully unconvincing British accent.

As the regally decorous boardinghouse operator, Lauren Bacall tilts her head at an imperious angle, and the suggestive smile that plays on her lips implies that she knows much more than she's willing to let on. But the impression she makes is far from indelible. Though she lends her character a formidable hauteur, you can't help but be surprised at how little she's managed to pick up about acting over the years.

Robert Mitchum is resonant in his low-key way as Bosworth, but he seems to be conserving his energy for some moment in the film that never comes. In fact, with the exception of Mary Stuart Masterson, who brings a concentrated intensity to her role, and Anjelica Huston (the director's sister), who as Bosworth's radiantly beautiful but remote granddaughter contributes to the film's family atmosphere, they all appear to have contributed only a portion of themselves to the project. It's as if they were making guest shots on a slightly upscale episode of "The Love Boat."

All in all, there's nothing especially offensive about "Mr. North"; it's just a passable sort of nonevent, and the brand of bloodless literary adaptation to which the senior Huston's work was an antidote.

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