JODIE FOSTER isn't kidding anybody when she tries to play warm and fuzzy.
In "Anna and the King," she's Anna Leonowens, an English schoolteacher who accepts an invitation to Siam to tutor the 58 children of King Mongkut (Chow Yun-Fat).
As soon as she arrives, Anna realizes her air of discipline and self-confidence is considered subversive in this patriarchal world. All subjects are obliged to grovel in King Mongkut's presence. The King's wives have one purpose: to make heirs. And because no women are allowed before the king, Anna is referred to as "Sir" to circumvent the rules.
Anna refuses to be treated as a second-class citizen. But despite being progressive for a man of his tradition, the king won't countenance such disrespect. After all, his advisors and people are watching.
The movie, directed by Andy ("Ever After") Tennant, is a straightforward romance of opposites -- nothing special, nothing particularly heartwarming. As if to make up for this formulaic emptiness, there's a lot of spectacle: the Siamese palace, gorgeous vegetation, big elephants and so forth.
Unfortunately, "Anna and the King" fails as the big-screen romance it wants to be. The main problem: There's only one heart between the principals, and it beats solely in Chow's chest.
Chow, the Hong Kong box office idol, who has recently moved to Hollywood, is the most watchable element in the movie. You can't take your eyes off him as he studies this strange Englishwoman or plays lovingly with his children. He's the King of Siam, no question. And that heart overflows with warmth, softness and mystique.
But Foster's softest mode is vulnerability, which she demonstrated capably in "Silence of the Lambs." She couldn't exude warmth if you strapped her to an electric chair. That mighty, controlling spirit is incapable -- at least in this movie -- of succumbing romantically to anyone.
As for her English accent, it sounds as if she has stapled her upper lip to her gums. This isn't just a minor distraction, it's a distinct shortcoming. You wonder if this "Anna" might be an American opportunist posing as an English schoolteacher. But that would be too interesting. And despite isolated scenes -- a nicely staged dance between King and schoolteacher, and a comical moment when Mongkut interrupts Anna when she's about to skinny-dip -- we're stuck with more than two hours of pageantry but precious little romance.
ANNA AND THE KING (PG-13, 140 minutes) -- Contains offscreen violence. Area theaters.