FROM THE masterpiece to the melody to the movie, "Mona Lisa" remains a beguiling work of art. The sphinx is a minx this time around, a licorice call girl whose mystique lures the movie's hero into a sordid pornographic fantasyland.
The title suggests a romantic idyll, but preconceptions fade with the entrance of anti-hero George, a pug-ugly ex-con whose prickly personality disguises a princely heart. His metamorphosis is at the crux of this darkly spun and beautifully crafted tragi-comedy.
The screenplay was written for Bob Hoskins, a bullet-headed Brit known for his complex portraits of mob lords in "The Long Good Friday" and "The Cotton Club." Hoskins, alternately explosive and deliberate, earns our sympathy for his two-fisted, thick-headed Cockney George. He's like a thundercloud that suddenly bursts and clears the air.
Director/cowriter Neil Jordan opens with a soft-focus scene worthy of a Turner landscape as a lone figure walks across the park at dawn to the strains of Nat King Cole's "Mona Lisa." We are expecting Mel Gibson, lean and handsome. George is short and round and going bald, a man of action with a personality that would unclog drains.
After seven years in prison, George returns to the real world, where he takes a job as driver and cover for Simone, a pricey prostitute with the demeanor of a princess and a heart that would freeze-dry coffee. The clash is inevitable and instantaneous. And so is the chemistry, an angry attraction that boils between these opposites until a wary friendship evolves. For her sake, George descends into a hellish world of seamy sex, to save an old colleague of Simone's with whom she is obsessed.
Hoskins and costar Cathy Tyson of the Royal Shakespeare Company are an electric couple, with their disparate colors and shapes. She's class; he's crass. Their turbulent teamwork is augmented with sure supporting performances by Michael Caine, as the flesh-peddling villain Mortwell; and British comedian Robbie Coltrane, as George's teddy bear of a best friend, Thomas.
Thomas, who sells spaghetti sculptures, is also writing a mystery, bouncing his ideas off pal George. In turn, George tells him the story of his involvement with Simone. Elements in Thomas' whodunit -- a homicidal white horse and dwarves who murder opera singers -- appear in the movie, thick with such visual references as fat white rabbits and Virgin Mary lamps. Sometimes the symbols are potent even if obvious: A sadder, wiser George confronts the heartless Simone wearing heart-shaped sunglasses on a boardwalk pier. His are star-shaped to replace the ones that fell from his eyes.
Director Jordan, with cowriter David Leland, bases the odd story on "The Frog Prince," as seen through the frog's eyes. The filmmaker is establishing himself as a Grimm Brother of film with this adult fable following his "The Company of Wolves," a surreal Red Riding Hood. "Mona Lisa" is partly about selling yourself and partly about selling your story. Minstrel or whore -- whose is the older profession? -- Rita Kempley. MONA LISA (R) -- At the Avalon and the West End Circle.