The Cable Guy spoofs TV culture; Moll Flanders spooks a classic novel

It would probably be easy for me to get hopped up over how casually writer-director Pen Densham butchers Daniel Dafoe's novel Moll Flanders, except I have to confess I've never read the book, nor had much interest in doing so. At least Densham admits the book was just his model for riffing on the independent spirit of a woman. (He claims to have made the film as a Valentine to his daughter.) Densham's movie isn't compelling or sexy, but it has a professional, quiet dignity to it. It's the Classic Comics version of a dry novel.

Moll (Robin Wright) is the boorish 18th-century heroine whose refusal to conform to societal norms feeds her ferocious self-reliance while condemning her to lowbrow status amid class-conscious English culture. Like Steven in The Cable Guy, she too learns the hard way how fleeting is our grasp on life's minor luxuries: With appalling ease, she goes from high-priced call girl to common hooker and back again. Even so, Moll hardens too fast, and the film loses its edge to the romantic realism it otherwise tries to cultivate.

Many of the problems with Moll Flanders can be traced directly to Wright's performance. She's not an actress of great range, and in film after film she has an annoying habit of building an emotional wall between herself and the audience. As Densham writes the character, Moll should be a beautiful soul, the type men can spot in any guise, but as Wright plays her, Moll is simply not clever, charming, or guileless enough to be so captivating.

Fortunately, Morgan Freeman and Stockard Channing are on hand to give a boost to their scenes. They're both fine character actors, and they make Densham's excellent dialogue come to life where Wright fails. Channing's catlike interpretation of a wicked madam is especially delicious, so it's too bad the film goes long stretches without her.

Moll Flanders doesn't tackle the social issues of English life like the Merchant-Ivory films (Howards End, The Remains of the Day) or the recent film adaptations of Jane Austen novels (Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion), but it is a modest, qualified success: It doesn't set out to be anything more than a clean, middle-of-the-road period romance centered on a strong woman, and as unambitious as that may sound, at least it hits its mark.

Moll Flanders. MGM-UA. Robin Wright, Morgan Freeman, Stockard Channing. Written and directed by Pen Densham. Now showing.

The Cable Guy. Columbia. Jim Carrey, Matthew Broderick. Written by Lou Holtz Jr. Directed by Ben Stiller. Now showing.

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