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‘The Object of Beauty’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 19, 1991

Michael Lindsay-Hogg's "The Object of Beauty" is mounted on the assumption that everything about the idle class, even their money problems, is endlessly fascinating. This is a movie about the tiresome woes of people who have too many shoes; who stop at the swankiest hotels and run up huge bills they cannot pay; who drain their bank accounts, crank their plastic to the maximum and still make their daily raids on the department stores.

It's about Jake and Tina (John Malkovich and Andie MacDowell), and if we actually got to see this chic couple living it up gloriously beyond their means and having the time of their lives -- if we got to see how they juice themselves by walking the line between luxurious self-indulgence and penury -- "The Object of Beauty" might have had a glitzy, high-tension charge. But Lindsay-Hogg, who also wrote the script, concentrates not on the naughty high that comes from spending money you don't have, but on the fretting that comes afterward. It's an orgy of hand-wringing.

The source of the problem, it seems, is that the shipment of cocoa Jake has pinned his financial dreams on is stranded on a dock somewhere in Sierra Leone, leaving him temporarily insolvent. Ordinarily, Jake is a genius with money, but the crisis has reached a point where he's forced to ask Tina if she would consider selling her little Henry Moore to generate some quick cash. But because the bronze bust is her prize possession (it was a gift from her first husband), she's loath to part with it and instead comes up with a scheme in which they pretend the object has been stolen and attempt to collect from the insurance company.

Before they can act, however, a poor, desolate, deaf hotel maid (Rudi Davies) pilfers the item for herself as a means of brightening her otherwise dismal life, later explaining that "it spoke to me." Their last resort gone, Jake and Tina begin to self-destruct. Tina is with Jake because he was always able to support her in the style to which she was accustomed. With that in doubt, the foundations of her affection for him begin to crumble.

MacDowell brings a great deal of sensuality and charm to her portrayal of what is basically a kept woman, and in patches she shows a fledgling gift for comedy. But her performance doesn't reveal her character, it beautifies it; she gives Tina a Revlon makeover. As for Malkovich, this is a kvetchy performance in an all-but-unplayable character. As usual, he's a singular presence, and he manages to bring odd comic shadings to his line readings, some of which are sublime. But mostly his blessed eccentricity is wasted.

It's the basic premise, though, that's truly killing, especially a socially conscious subplot about the all-suffering deaf girl and her deadbeat brother. Perhaps the shrewdest thing the filmmakers have done is call the film "The Object of Beauty" instead of "A Thing of Beauty," which would make much more sense. By doing so they've removed what they must have known was a far-too-tempting opening for reviewers -- of saying "A Thing of Beauty" is not a joy forever. Even with the change, though, the sentiment fits.

"The Object of Beauty" is rated R for language.

Copyright The Washington Post

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