THE HUMAN STAIN Hollywood screwed up its 1972 adaptation of Portnoy's Complaint so miserably that it's no wonder most of Philip Roth's other works haven't been turned into motion pictures.The Human Stain is the first big-screen adaptation since Portnoy, and it's been given the grade-A treatment, with Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer) directing, Nicholas Meyer (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution) scripting, and a quartet of accomplished actors headlining. But rather than buckle under the weight of all that Oscar bait, this turns out to be an affecting picture in its own right, almost subdued in the manner in which it tackles its myriad issues of race, loss, identity, and the lengths to which one man will reinvent himself to succeed in America. Set during that period when the country was focused on the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, the movie traces the downward spiral of college professor Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) after an innocent classroom comment is misinterpreted as a racial slur in a time of rampant political correctness. Suddenly without a career or a family, Coleman passes the days alternating between dwelling on secrets buried in his past and engaging in a tentative relationship with a complex woman (Nicole Kidman) who paints herself as the ultimate in trailer park trash. Ed Harris' intensity as Kidman's crazed ex-husband is unsettling, and Gary Sinise makes his narrator a comfortably reassuring companion. Yet it's the two leads who dominate: Hopkins hasn't been this interesting in years, while Kidman's amazing portrayal is merely the latest in her current winning streak.
SHATTERED GLASS Based on the real-life scandal involving writer Stephen Glass, who fabricated 27 of the 41 stories he penned for The New Republic in the 1990s, it would be logical to assume that this film would rake the fourth estate over the coals, illustrating how it had continued to shift from a source of reliable information into a circus act of celebrity reporters riding unicycles of distortion and deceit. Yet the surprise of Shattered Glass is that it's ultimately a celebration of journalistic integrity, emulating All the President's Men in the manner in which it presents most of its characters as moral crusaders who will do whatever it takes to uncover the truth. Hayden Christensen, whose solid work here confirms the suspicion that his Anakin Skywalker was weakened not so much by his own thespian abilities but by George Lucas' clunky dialogue, stars as Glass, whose empathic nature and self-effacing personality make him a favorite around the New Republic office. Yet when his latest story, a popular piece about a computer hacker, begins to raise red flags among the members of an online publication, TNR editor Charles Lane (Peter Sarsgaard) is forced to look into the matter and accept wherever it leads him. Writer-director Billy Ray (working from Buzz Bissinger's Vanity Piece article) makes the movie as much about Lane as Glass, a sound decision that allows audiences to admire one man's commitment to integrity even as it disapproves of his colleague's immoral actions. 1/2
THE SINGING DETECTIVE Dennis Potter's same-named BBC miniseries from 1986 has long been considered one of the greatest works ever created for television, and by reconstructing the material into feature-length form before his death in 1994, the British writer obviously hoped that a big-screen version would be greeted with similar acclaim. Fat chance. Finally seeing the light of day after a decade-long gestation period, Potter's script finds itself at the center of a calamity that's misguided right from the opening frames. Robert Downey Jr. stars as Dan Dark (not to be confused with Donnie Darko), a pulp fiction writer who suffers from a debilitating skin condition that fuels not only his deeply entrenched cynicism but also feverish daydreams in which he imagines himself as a musically inclined shamus. Making a movie that's both bizarre and boring would normally seem unlikely. But The Singing Detective manages this unenviable feat, as director Keith Gordon attempts to goose the material with poorly choreographed musical numbers and ham-fisted technical tricks -- which only point out the bankruptcy of the gumshoe angle and the increasingly tedious behavior of its central character. Downey and Mel Gibson (in a radical departure as a balding, fidgety psychiatrist) perform well under the circumstances, but the rest of this wayward production sustains one long, flat note. 1/2
BROTHER BEAR Oh, brother, what a bore... Brother Bear has been plugged as the last gasp of the traditional animated film, but I'd hate to think the future of anything depended on something this mediocre. This soggy tale finds Disney raiding its own tombs for material, cobbling together pieces of The Lion King, Pocahontas and other hits to create a yawn-inducing yarn about a warrior who's transformed into a bear. The human characters are dull, the requisite bear cub is cloying, the comic relief (doltish moose voiced by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas) is annoying, and the songs by Phil Collins -- how do I delicately put this? -- suck. 1/2