ROMAN DE GARE Ever since winning a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for the 1966 international smash Un homme et une femme (A Man and a Woman), writer-director Claude Lelouch has steadily turned into persona non grata in the United States, to such a startling degree that most of his movies don't even rate any sort of theatrical run on this side of the Atlantic. Thankfully, his latest film managed to slip through the embargo, as Roman de Gare is a suspenseful drama with enough satisfying twists to keep any mystery hound satisfied. In an atypical but brilliant bit of casting, the pinch-faced Dominique Pinon (Amelie, Delicatessen) plays a mysterious man who's catching his breath at a highway rest area when Huguette (Audrey Dana), a temperamental hairdresser beaten down by life, gets unceremoniously abandoned there by her fiancé. Alone and frightened, she reluctantly accepts a ride from this odd-looking character. But who is he, exactly? The film hints that he's the serial killer who just escaped from prison. Then it suggests that maybe he's the teacher who abandoned his wife and kids for a life on the road. And finally, the man himself claims to be the personal assistant of – and perhaps even the ghostwriter for – best-selling author Judith Ralitzer (Fanny Ardant). Lelouch and co-scripter Pierre Uytterhoeven repeatedly pile on clues that take us in one direction before swerving down a different path, yet what's especially clever about the plotting is that anything that proves to be merely a red herring is then incorporated into another storyline, thereby minimizing the danger of dangling plotholes. That's not to say the movie is drum-tight – the climactic revelation isn't as carefully thought out as what precedes it – but moviegoers in the mood for an alternative to the summer blockbusters will forgive any minor slippage. ***1/2
HANCOCK The idea behind Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken" can be applied to this sci-fi outing that, somewhat surprisingly, ends up taking the path "less traveled by." Yet equally surprising is the fact that this enjoyable film would have been even better had it played out as expected. The premise is irresistible: Hancock (Will Smith) is an alcoholic, antisocial superhero whose crimefighting exploits usually end up causing millions of dollars in damage to the city of Los Angeles. The residents have had enough of him, and the police even have a warrant out for his arrest. Hancock couldn't care less until PR guy Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), despite protests from his wife (Charlize Theron), decides he's going to help Hancock overhaul his public image by transforming him from a menace to society into a hero worthy of respect. The first half sprints with this plotline, resulting in a movie that's consistently funny and inventive – even the typically heavy-handed direction by Peter Berg (The Kingdom) can't dilute the fun. But without warning, scripters Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan orchestrate a major plot pirouette, one that dramatically changes the relationships between the characters and allows a sharp satire to mutate into (in no order) a melodrama, a romance, a tragedy, and a myth-building muddle. No movie should survive such a clumsy shift, and yet this manages to get back on its feet, thanks in no small part to the conviction that Smith and Theron bring to their roles. Audience members willing to hop aboard this emotional roller coaster ride will respond to the resultant pathos far better than viewers wondering why the laughs suddenly went MIA. **1/2
HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY While this sequel to the 2004 feature doesn't lack for visual wonders, it's utterly clumsy in the storytelling department, a genuine shock given writer-director Guillermo del Toro's usual ability to spin a tall tale. Here, Hellboy (Ron Perlman), the satanic emissary who fights on the side of right, must face off against an albinotic, ancient leader (Luke Goss) who hopes to revive an army of lumbering brutes to destroy humankind. Del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) is clearly most content when he's frolicking with freaks, but his obsession comes at a high price. The original Hellboy wasn't anything special, either, but at least the predicament of its red-hued hero carried some dramatic heft, particularly in the way his feeble wisecracks masked the painful ache in his soul, a loneliness that could only be cured by the love of another mutant, the pyrokinetic Liz (Selma Blair). The misfit romance between Hellboy and Liz was arguably the best part of the original flick, yet del Toro miscalculates this time around by moving the pair too quickly to the status of bickering, boring lovers. For all its cool critter content, this is surprisingly snooze-inducing when it comes to its storyline and even its central characters; there's an aloofness to the whole enterprise that's atypical for the director, suggesting that maybe his mind was already racing ahead to future projects. Then again, with The Hobbit on his plate, that was probably to be expected. **
JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH Ever since the 3-D process first appeared in cinema in 1952's Bwana Devil (advertised with the tagline, "A lion in your lap! A lover in your arms!"), filmmakers have attempted to turn this innovative technique into more than just a fad that appears at regular intervals over the years. The pictures have been both good (1953's Vincent Price chiller House of Wax) and bad (the 1980s' Jaws 3-D and Friday the 13th Part III), but it wasn't until last year's Beowulf that the technology was finally perfected. Seeking to build upon Beowulf's breakthrough, Journey to the Center of the Earth takes the 3-D ball and runs with it. In presenting this tale of a scientist (Brendan Fraser) who discovers that Jules Verne's classic novel is more fact than fiction and subsequently travels beneath the surface with his surly nephew (Josh Hutcherson) and their hottie guide (Anita Briem) in tow, the filmmakers throw everything but a three-dimensional kitchen sink at us: a dinosaur's snapping jaws, prehistoric piranhas' pointy teeth, oversized Venus flytraps, bouncing balls, a protruding tape measure, even spittle. It's all rather nifty, but the problem is that the majority of theaters are not showing the picture in 3-D (most multiplexes don't have the capability yet). And whereas House of Wax and Beowulf remain entertaining yarns when watched in the normal, flat format, this Journey is so insipid that it'd be a chore trying to sit through the simple-minded narrative without the added incentive. As for Fraser's overacting, he's such a ham that his eyes pop out of the screen even more menacingly than those sharp dinosaur choppers. **
KIT KITTREDGE: AN AMERICAN GIRL For its first two-thirds, this motion picture, based on the both the popular doll line and the equally successful book series, emerges as one of the season's most unexpected delights, precisely because what could have been a rehash of last summer's painful Nancy Drew adaptation instead registers as a mature and intelligent drama – in this case, the G rating stands for Grown-ups as much as it stands for General Audiences. It's just a shame that the movie loses its bearings and turns into a Home Alone clone during the final stretch. The film is set in Cincinnati during the height of the Great Depression, and preteen Kit (Abigail Breslin) watches as her father (Chris O'Donnell) has to move away to Chicago to look for work and her mother (Julia Ormond) is forced to rent out rooms to boarders. Still, kids will be kids, and although she has to take on more than her share of adult responsibilities, Kit also finds time to dream about becoming a published writer and manages to make some new friends. The various plights of the Kittredges, their struggling neighbors, and members of the hobo community add a bracing topicality to the piece: As wealthy conservatives untouched by the Depression rail against (and refuse to help) everyone who's been financially decimated, it's hard not to view this community as a microcosm of today's United States of America. The weighty themes remain throughout the picture, though they end up taking a back seat to the buffoonish antics of Joan Cusack (as a clumsy librarian) and a tepid subplot involving a string of burglaries. ***
THE LOVE GURU If I had ever entertained the notion that Mike Myers would some day make another movie as awful as the infamous live-action version of The Cat In the Hat, I might have opted for early retirement long before the fact. Yet here comes The Love Guru, and it matches that Dr. Seuss bastardization step for step when it comes to thinking up evil ways to torture audience members. I daresay that even a splinter in the eyeball would be less painful than sitting through this debacle. Myers, who also co-wrote what we'll loosely refer to as the screenplay, stars as Guru Pitka, an American-born, Indian-raised spiritual leader who's miffed that he constantly places second to Deepak Chopra when it comes to the popularity of self-help gurus. Pitka is given a golden opportunity to excel when he's hired by Toronto Maple Leafs owner Jane Bullard (Jessica Alba, and you know you're in trouble when she's one of the more tolerable aspects of a movie) to patch matters up between the hockey team's star player, Darren Roanoke (Romany Malco), and his wife Prudence (Meagan Good), who lately has been stepping out with the enormously endowed Los Angeles Kings goalie Jacques "Le Coq" Grande (Justin Timberlake). And yes, every time Le Coq pulls out le cock, we predictably hear a thud as it hits the floor. In fact, predictability is a rampant problem with The Love Guru, as a substantial amount of gags can be guessed before they even finish coagulating. That's not to say every joke is apparent before the fact, as witnessed by ones involving copulating elephants, urine-saturated mops and the term "monkey mustard." An embarrassment, to say the least. *
MEET DAVE How many times have we moaned about how "all the best parts were shown in the trailer"? Meet Dave takes the opposite stance: Based on the preview, this vehicle for Eddie Murphy looked as if it would compete with The Love Guru in the sheer awfulness department. And make no mistake: What's presented is still pretty bad. But compared to Mike Myers' toxic effort, this almost comes off as Annie Hall by comparison. What the trailer doesn't convey is that Murphy actually delivers a sharp comic performance as Dave, a human-shaped-and-sized spaceship powered by the tiny aliens within. He also plays the diminutive captain of the spacecraft, but he isn't especially memorable in this dry role, spending much of the time alternately wooing a fellow shipmate (Gabrielle Union) and a friendly Earthwoman (Elizabeth Banks), as well as slowly learning that our planet and its inhabitants are capable of offering compassion and beauty and great movies like It's a Wonderful Life. It's Murphy's work as the walking, talking spaceship that's inspired, as the character amusingly reacts to the surplus of confusing information flooding his system (as when Banks' Gina announces that they're eating meatloaf for dinner and the ship's computer brings up images of the burly rocker). Unfortunately, Murphy far outshines the material, which mixes the usual bodily-function gags with the usual last-minute sanctimonious pleas for compassion and open-mindedness. *1/2
WALL-E This animated effort from Pixar is a treat for the young and old alike, although it might end up endearing itself even more to adults than to kids. And it's not just because grown-ups will enjoy the usual asides tossed their way (e.g. a witty reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey; Alien star Sigourney Weaver providing the voice of a ship's computer); it's also because the plot itself will speak to them in a way that it can't to humans who still don't possess all their permanent teeth. For ultimately WALL-E is about nothing less than one of the tenets of human existence: the need to find a partner with whom to share life's experiences. Of course, the switch here is that it's a robot, not a human, who's in need of companionship. WALL-E is the last of his type, a Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-class robot who rumbles around a deserted Earth, as all humans have long since abandoned the polluted planet to take up residence in a gargantuan spaceship called the Axiom. (Yes, it's a pro-environment cartoon, and it's no accident that our planet's Public Enemy #1, George W. Bush, is referenced via a CEO urging others to "stay the course.") When a sleek robot named EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) is dropped off on the planet to search for signs that it might be inhabitable again, WALL-E pursues her like a dog in heat, and once she's ferried back to the Axiom, our intrepid little Romeo determines not to let her get away. I won't reveal any of the action that takes place on the spaceship, but rest assured that the movie retains its comic invention while adding slight degrees of action and menace. And who knew that romance between robots could be so affecting? ***1/2
OPENS FRIDAY, JULY 25:
THE LAST MISTRESS: Asia Argento, Fu'ad Ait Aattou.
STEP BROTHERS: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly.
THE X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson.