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June 2000

Life, Return to Me, and Pushing Tin

And the failed pursuit of funniness

Life*** The Nutty Prisoner
Life opens in Prohibition-era New York. Ray (Eddie Murphy) is a fast-talking con man with big dreams. Claude (Martin Lawrence) is an honest, straight-laced bank teller in training. The two men meet at a nightclub run by notorious gangster Spanky (Rick James). When they owe Spanky money, they are forced to drive to the Deep South and bring back a truckload of moonshine. Unfortunately, they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, and are framed for the murder of a card shark (Clarence Williams III). After a kangaroo court trial, they are sentenced to life. The two spend most of their prison time bickering, but, over the course of their incarceration, a friendship slowly develops.
Director Ted Demme takes a clever episodic approach, first checking in with the pair in the 1930s, and returning in the 1940s, the 1970s and the 1990s. Oddly, the most refreshing aspect of this odd duo in stripes is the stars’ incremental aging. Thanks to makeup wizard Rick Baker, we follow the cast through 65 years of jawing and scheming. Murphy’s genius for physical comedy makes him wonderful to watch as a grumpy old man, but the film is most convincing in its depiction of the early years, when its cast keeps the gags going fast and furious. Hip-hopper Wyclef Jean, contributing his first movie score, orchestrates the ebb and flow of time, announcing the arrival of each era with panache. Doing time with this flick is cool punishment.

Return to Me*** Return to Sender
Set in Chicago, Return to Me opens with parallel stories. In one, a happily married couple, Bob and Liz Rueland (David Duchovny and Joely Richardson), are attending a fund-raiser being held for the Lincoln Park Zoo, where Liz works. In the other, a young woman, Grace (Minnie Driver), is lying sick in a hospital bed, awaiting a heart transplant while her sister, Megan (Bonnie Hunt), looks on anxiously. When Liz is killed in an auto accident, her heart is given to Grace. A year later, Grace is fully recovered from the operation, but has developed a fear of romance since discovering men tend to run when she reveals her scar. Bob, trying to get his life back on track, goes to “O’Reilly’s Italian Restaurant” on a blind date, but loses interest in his companion when he beholds Grace, his waitress. The attraction between them is mutual.
The film’s a hit for debut director Bonnie Hunt, who also developed the story, co-wrote the screenplay and has a supporting role. Hunt deftly balances drama, comedy and romance, and, as a result, avoids moments of extreme sugar shock. The two leads possess chemistry, the key intangible that can make even the most inane romantic comedy work. Carroll O’Connor and Robert Loggia are outstanding as Grace’s relatives. As to more personal family ties, Hunt cast her mother, two brothers, two sisters and a nephew in small supporting roles. Return to Me is above the kind of trite manipulation a story like this invites, blossoming into a sublime audience-pleaser. It’s from the heart.

Pushing Tin** Being John Cusack
Pushing Tin takes us into the high-pressure world of New York City air-traffic controllers. There we meet Nick “The Zone” Falzone (John Cusack), the top gun and coolest controller around. Every close call gives him a head rush; when a colleague freezes up, he rides higher in his saddle. Enter Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton), an enigmatic daredevil who starts his shift by placing a ceremonial feather behind one ear (he’s half Native American). Russell has devised his own unique system in which he deliberately brings planes within dangerously close range of each other. He immediately proves that he is as good as, if not better than, Nick at controlling a large number of planes, sparking off a fierce rivalry between the two. The rivalry intensifies when the two are introduced to each other’s wives (Angelina Jolie and Cate Blanchett). Nick finds himself obsessed by Russell’s wife, and slowly begins to lose control over his professional and personal life, putting both men on a collision course with a nervous breakdown.
Director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) has delivered a sluggish film, which, at two hours plus, is much too long. Individual scenes are well crafted, but a few don’t work well together. The script, written by sitcom veterans Glen and Les Charles (‘‘Cheers’’), recalls a season’s worth of hokey episodes — every 15 minutes showcases a dramatic device more outlandishly cheesy than the last. The scene in which the men lay on the runway beneath a departing 747 is admittedly quite funny. The rest is a near miss.

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