The Next New Wave

Our critic ventures to the Great White North, looking for the Worthy and Undistributed

Baumbach has a wonderful sense of comic pacing, and he's good with his cast, which also includes Peter Bogdanovich, Carlos Jacott and Secrets & Lies' Marianne Jean-Baptiste. I suspect Baumbach hasn't received the media hype of some of his snazzier contemporaries, such as Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez, because he's too patterned and literate a filmmaker to create a sensation. People speak complete sentences in his movies and never pull guns. He's working on "youth" themes, but his true generation includes Woody Allen, Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, Paul Mazursky and the whole '30s screwball-comedy brigade. He deserves bigger budgets and bigger movies. Dialogue as good as his shouldn't be restricted to the art houses and the festival rounds. Funny is funny.

The documentary Moon Over Broadway chronicles the history of the hit Broadway show Moon Over Buffalo from casting through opening night and a bit beyond. The show starred Philip Bosco and Carol Burnett, who, after 30 years of television and movies, wanted a Broadway hit. (She got it.) The husband-and-wife directing team of D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus (The War Room) gets inside the ego-rama that is Broadway. The funny thing about this movie is that all of the usual life-in-the-theater cliches are confirmed. They're not cliches after all!

There's the temperamental star, the money-grubbing producers, the martinet director (Tom Moore), the nervous-wreck playwright (Ken Ludwig, fresh from Lend Me a Tenor). It's as if we were watching the play within the play. Pennebaker and Hegedus were given behind-the-scenes access, and back-stabbing and badmouthing are the order of the day. Burnett comes across as tense and embattled--a comic diva who feels constrained by the play's clockwork mechanics. She's a great improvisatory comedienne straitjacketed into a suit of Broadway armor. The one time we see her swagger and let loose is when a mechanical failure temporarily shuts down a preview performance, and, just as in the old Carol Burnett Show days, she gets in front of the audience and lets it rip.

I was a big fan of Robert Bierman's 1989 black comedy Vampire's Kiss, featuring Nicolas Cage as a New York book publisher/bloodsucker who actually gets to eat a real-live cockroach before our very eyes. Vainly, I've been waiting ever since for another Bierman film. Now there's Keep the Aspidistra Flying, a first-rate piece of work based on the 1936 George Orwell novel. The film stars Richard E. Grant as Gordon Comstock, a writer of whiz-bang ad copy for clients like Cyprolax Hair Lotion and Whiterose Pills for Female Disorders who chucks it all to become a starving poet. Helena Bonham Carter plays his girlfriend, Rosemary, an illustrator in the agency who abides and endures Gordon's sponging and ardor.

Bierman has such an entrancing comic touch that what might have been a clucky comedy about class instead comes across as moonstruck. The scenes between Grant and Carter are rapturously silly. (This may be the only movie ever made in which a writer takes his friends to a four-star restaurant on the earnings from a published poem.) The working-class films we've been seeing from England over the past few years are mostly bumptious and genial and hokey--such as The Full Monty and Brassed Off--or hyped-up, such as Trainspotting.

The sweet and rather old-fashioned Keep the Aspidistra Flying is closer to the eccentric spirit of the Alec Guinness comedies (The Man in the White Suit) that came out of Ealing Studios--but it has a bloom of its own. Bierman is no scold. When Gordon cans the life of the poet and returns in glory to advertising, we want to cheer. The privileges of the middle class have never seemed so lustrous. This film would make a great double bill with Albert Brooks' similarly themed Lost in America, but first, of course, it must attract an American distributor. Maybe these words will help.

The Montreal World Film Festival
Bad Manners, American Perfekt, Another 91/2 Weeks

The Toronto Film Festival
Mr. Jealousy, Moon Over Broadway, Keep the Aspidistra Flying

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