With Woody Allen temporarily indisposed by an attack of solemnity, fun-seeking moviegoers might give serious consideration to "Born Again" as a reliable source of comic relief.This exquisitely stilted movie version of Charles Colson's best-selling memoir is a small trove of unintentiontal mirth, especially for Washington-area viewers.
I don't find Colson's account of his transformation from White House hatchetman to evangelical reformer inherently implausible. Stranger things have happened, and Colson certainly had reasons to seek spiritual support. The book isn't totally reassuring, but it's an interesting document, enlivened by some fascinating glimpses of what it requires and costs to be a courtier in Washinton, D.C.
The psychological complexity that gave some distinction to the book has been replaced by cartoon historical recreation and pedestrian piety in the movie, now at several area theaters. You don't have to find Colson himself insincere to reject just about every scene in "Born Again" on the grounds of inadequate or ridiculous presentation.
The film develops expository shakes almost instantly. A sunrise vista of the White House appears to be setting the scene for an orderly chronicle of the rise, fall and redemption of Chuck Colson. Suddenly we're at the Lincoln Memorial watching Dean Jones, the unimpressive choice to impersonate Colson, pretending to have an emotional crisis against picturesque backdrops. An episode of President Nixon (impersonated hilariously by an actor with a Nixon-mask face, Harry Spillman) greeting Colson at the outset of his administration is intercut ironically with scenes of Colson being handcuffed, fingerprinted and introduced to prison life.
This stuttering, hindsight-heavy preamble is further weakened by the interjection of interminable opening credits and a maudlin title song that closes on the vow, "Just let me be born again/And I'll live my life for You-Who!" The melody is vaguely reminiscent of "Where the Boys Are," which might be a good title for a deliberate spoof of the Nixon administration or the Watergate scandals.
"Born Again" trudges goofily along as Anne Francis, in the role of Mrs. Colson, betrays butterflies on the eve of her first White House invitation. "Oh, Chuck," she quails, "I don't know the first thing about White House protocol." Jones lovingly reassures her. "Honey, the way you look, you can break all the rules of protocol you wish." Naturally, the filmmakers neglect to show us if she did.
Back in the Oval Office, Spillman is still impersonating up a storm. Frustrated at lack of action on Ellsberg, he exclaims, "Do I have to do everything myself?"
Cut to the office of troubleshooter Colson, where a secretary trills, "E. Howard Hunt is here." In the door walks an actor bearing a startling resemblance not to E. Howard Hunt but to Frank Getlein. Colson says, "You'll be part of a new White House unit designed to stop these leaks." With a gleam of conspiratorial delight, Hunt replies, "Sort of like plumbers, eh?"
I did a colossal double-take at one line, when Colson gathers his staff members to ask if anyone knows about the Watergate break-in. No one does, inspiring an aide to comment, "Maybe we're trying to do what the Washington Star is doing: making a mountain out of a molehill."
The scene in which Dana Andrews as Raytheon president Tom Phillips confides his new-found religious contentment to a troubled Colson is also a beaut. Looking beatific, Andrews strolls Jones around his fabulous estate while confessing, "I came to the realization that all my early business success and money didn't mean very much." Maybe not, but that's some spread he's got there.
What with one incongruity or another, "Born Again" is certainly one for the books. I'm not sure if it will bring instruction and comfort to sinners, but it has plenty to recommend it to connoisseurs of klutzy movies.