'The Moderns' (NR)By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 30, 1988
"The Moderns" is a languid, liars' film, rich with red lipstick and faux CÚzanne. Everything is ersatz, even the surrealism in Alan Rudolph's 10th movie, a lingering sendup of cafe' society in the 1920s, of Americans in Paris, of hot air strong as cognac fumes.
All the phonies, forgers, gossips and snobs in the world seem to have gathered under Rudolph's fabricated Eiffel Tower. But mostly they only fool themselves in this comedy of self-deception, in which the director, likewise, feints and parodies. He creates a smoke screen of his own, relying on mood and music to hide his weakness as a storyteller. His scripts are only departure points for his moving canvases in blues and noir.
Should the critics quibble with the technique, Rudolph slaps back in advance. In "The Moderns," celebrity art forger David Stein plays an art
critic who stupidly condemns a real Ce'zanne to the fire and thereby authenticates a copy by the movie's hero. Keith Carradine plays this struggling painter Hart, who makes ends meet as a caricaturist. He's a Rudolph favorite, the hard-boiled archetype -- Bogart with a BFA, detached as the soles on a gumshoe.
He dawdles at his favorite cafe', doodling Ravel and Hemingway. The pretense is as dense as the Gauloise smoke and the sound of the French rolling r's. Hart is amused when he sees a woman with cocktail eyes. Unlike the traditional noir hero, who wouldn't take off his trench coat, even in bed, Hart can't wait to fall in love with Rachel Stone. But Rachel, played by sultry Linda Fiorentino, is a married woman, with a dangerous husband, Bertram, a prophylactics manufacturer who calls himself a rubber baron.
John Lone, fresh from the "The Last Emperor," is only a curiosity as Bertram Stone. He's never remotely real in his broad performance, a parody of oriental inscrutability, a nouveau riche Fu Manchu who tries to buy acceptance with an art collection. He already owns Rachel, lock, stock and cloche hat. But you can't buy love -- the cliche' around which this ambitious allegory wheels.
Luckily the love triangle is a sturdy structure. Of all the plots in all the world, it's the least apt to collapse under a ton of subtext. Rudolph must know that, for he plays the angles over and over. Here, Hart defies Stone, hoping to wean Rachel of her dependency on her rich husband. In "Trouble in Mind," it was Hawk springing Georgia from her possessive husband Coop (Carradine again), and in "Choose Me," Mickey (also Carradine) was torn between Eve and Dr. Love.
Along with a passion for name games and apposition, Rudolph has an anorexic's taste in actors. He likes them lanky like Carradine and painfully thin like Geraldine Chaplin and Genevieve Bujold, Rudolph regulars who play a rich divorce'e and a gallery owner here. Even the "Moderns" poster, painted by Carradine, is skinny. And there's cinematographer Toyomichi Kurita scaling the hero's angular profile as lovingly as a rock climber. Carradine has a fine strong face, golden and Lincolnesque, yes. But given this expedition for truth, shouldn't Rudolph know that beauty is only skin deep?
And then like a miraculous Muppet with a gumball head, along comes roly-poly Wallace Shawn to steal the show from the lean cuisine. He's like the dot on the exclamation point as the excitable, erudite, witty Oiseau (the bird). He's a gossip columnist whose chummy little lies appear with Hart's caricatures in the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune. "Everyone hates repeating gossip. But what else is there to do with it?" he notes. With insights to spare, Oiseau is forever helping Hemingway work out the kinks in his similes. "Paris is like a ... a portable banquet," says Hemingway, a sort of brilliant clod irreverently played by Kevin O'Connor, who turned what was originally a three-line part into an integral role.
Other celebrities of the day mingle among the movie's characters -- Ravel in the men's room, an imperious Gertrude Stein (Elsa Raven) at her salon. Rudolph, who cowrote the script with the late Jon Bradshaw, cleverly lampoons Stein in her own style, while happily mangling Hemingway. The appropriate, powerful musical score talks back too. "Dada, dada, dada, dada Je suis," sings the cafe''s resident composer, just when things are making the least sense to the hero.
That's "The Moderns" at its best -- an ingenuous mix of sight, sound and snappy repartee -- just as you'd imagine it in a Left Bank cafe'. At its worst, it's an inconclusive display of cryptic virtuosity, as when the fakir "Bertie" (sounds like "birdie") rises from a grave earmarked for the faker Oiseau. It's another of Rudolph's cosmic true or false questions for which he provides no answers.
"The Moderns," like his other films, seeks the balance between the opposites but never, when all is said and done, comes up with anything more profound than good over evil and boy gets girl. The end is straight from the heart of the MGM lion. "Paris is a parody of itself," says Oiseau, proclaiming the new mecca of hip Hollywood, where the happy endings come from. And that's the truth, isn't it?
"The Moderns" is not rated, but has adult content.
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