GRANT'S TOMB

Even without the indignity of having his mug shot taken wearing that wretched JC Penney shirt--which his fashion-model girlfriend probably regards as his most grievous transgression--there would be reason enough to feel badly for Hugh Grant these days. His new movie, Nine Months, though it appears to be chugging along quite nicely at the box office, also chugs right over Grant, flattening out, as only an American vehicle can, the elements of his persona to which international audiences warmed in the first place.

It was already becoming apparent that Grant was an actor of, to put it mildly, modest range, but he was so able to capitalize upon that range, so skillful in deploying that stammering, foot-shuffling charm, that he seemed a major comic find, anyway. To put him at the center of a big, noisy, hugely stupid, unimaginative American comedy like Nine Months is like hiring a harpist to entertain at a tractor pull.

As a result, Grant is worse in the role than a nondescript leading man would have been. Struggling to keep up with co-stars like Tom Arnold and Robin Williams, he mugs desperately, his eyes distended, searching for a spot to slip in a bit of his sly style between director Chris Columbus' ugly pratfalls.

Although Nine Months will likely make Grant richer than all of his Brit films together, it poses a problem for him aesthetically. The price of wide success as a film star is that you usually can't go back to the small, clever works that first brought you notice, and this is especially true in movie comedy. The career of Robin Williams--whose lamest works most often have been his biggest successes--is a prime example of this principle.

Some of the above might suggest that I have a low opinion of broad, raucous American comedy. Far from it. But even at its broadest, comedy should have some inventiveness and shape--Amy Heckerling's current Clueless is an example of how fresh and clever and unpredictable broad comedy can be. Chris Columbus (who in photographs looks remarkably like Grant, though perhaps better-looking) shapes every scene toward one of two payoffs--either a character screams as an accident happens, or a character smiles as something adorable happens.

In either case, the director's approach is to shove the camera as far into the faces of the actors as possible. Grant's leading lady, Julianne Moore, has such a lens-grabbing smile that Columbus shoots her assaultively, as if he's trying to show us what she had for lunch.

As for the script, which Columbus wrote (based, of course, on some French film), it's another of those propaganda pieces on how utterly wrongheaded it is to be unenthusiastic about children. Grant plays a rich Bay Area child psychiatrist who neither has nor wants kids--this is the level of wit at which the film operates--thrown into a tizzy when girlfriend Moore announces she's pregnant. She instantly goes into nesting mode; he acts like he's been punched. None of this truly engages the issues involved in the decision to parent. Grant, who's wealthy enough to have an apartment with a bay view Tony Bennett couldn't afford, whines that he'll have to give up his beloved Porsche in favor of a big family car.

The only character in the film that I wanted to see more of was, a little surprisingly, Jeff Goldblum, as Grant's bachelor friend, a failed painter and playboy. Goldblum seems indomitable, somehow able to rise above Columbus' ham-fistedness and set his own quiet, gentle pace. The mild-mannered, sweet-natured lecher he draws is a truly vivid comic character. When he left Nine Months, I wanted to go along and see what he would get up to.

Robin Williams appears briefly as a high-strung Russian ob-gyn given to malapropisms; it's a respectably zany, mad Russian in the grand vaudeville tradition. Tom Arnold, who was just right in True Lies, is a bit much here, as the blowhard family man who helps Grant overcome his kinderphobia. But at least Arnold seems to be in his element--like his size, it gives him an advantage over poor Grant.

In the key role of Arnold's fertile wife, Joan Cusack is the worst served. Columbus keeps cutting to her pitying gaze every time Grant expresses dismay at the prospect of being a father. It's a sorry use to put this marvelously oddball comedienne to--it's like a miniature version of what's being done to Grant.

 
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