WHEN BIG NAMES collide, the Nicholsons, Hoffmans, Beattys, Streeps and DeNiros, you get "Falling in Love," you get "Ishtar," you get "Heartburn." Godzilla (represented by International Creative Management) meets Godzilla (represented by International Creative Management). Together, they Act -- crushing the tiny Tokyo-of-a-film below them.
In "Ironweed," Hector Babenco's adaptation of the William Kennedy novel, once again big stars (Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep) crowd the place. But they don't make as many potholes in this Tokyo (actually, Albany, circa 1938). Nicholson subdues most of the leering and eyebrow aerobics to become Francis Phelan, a restless man of no fixed address. Phelan's life is a twofold struggle: to find the next drink and shelter; to come to terms with a tragic past of murders, manslaughters and a family he had to desert.
Streep, incapable of anything but obsessive over-commitment ("I hed a farrm in Aafrica"), plays things no differently in Aalbany. As Helen, Frank's partner-in-alms, her eyes seemed rubbed raw, the hair matted and hidden under a filthy cap. It looks as though she slept in an alley between takes. The good news is that she gets less screen time than Nicholson. For diehard Streep fans, this won't be enough of course. But for those who wish she'd keep her Intensity under a shawl, it's welcome.
Brazilian cinematographer Lauro Escorel gives "Ironweed" an appropriately ashen, cold sheen. But Babenco ("Pixote," "Kiss of the Spider Woman") gives Kennedy's script too much respect and not enough signature -- or passion. He seems to direct potentially powerful scenes at a distance: a pitched battle between tram strikers and scabs; an alleyway squabble between Francis and Helen; Francis' return home after more than 20 years.
"Ironweed" is decent fare, not excellent. It gets by on the strength of the unexpected. Babenco's depiction of ghosts, for instance (Francis' hallucinations), are just men in white suits, enveloped in ghost-glow. But they succeed on Nicholson's reaction -- he treats them as dumb hallucinations. Other pleasant surprises include memorable cameos by Fred Gwynne as an over-the-hill radio star, now a bartender, and Tom Waits as Rudy, a besotted and haplessly cheerful man who's dying of cancer.
IRONWEED (R) -- At area theaters.