Picture imperfect

Great Expectations' beauty is only skin deep

There Finn reconnects with Estella. Virtuous and poor, he becomes the toast of the New York art world, but he's not happy with his newfound fame and riches. Dazed and bedraggled, still taunted by Estella--who offers herself as a nude model for his show--he's a bad advertisement for the good life.

Finn is such a mopehead that it's difficult to care about his rite of passage. His paintings and drawings are genuinely good--they are actually the work of Francesco Clemente--and yet he gets no solace from his gifts because he has, in his words, "cut himself off from the past" and "reinvented" himself. We know what's coming: his renunciation of his big-city ways. We're meant to applaud his turning his back on his art--which is an odd stance for the artists who made this film to take.

Great Expectations is almost touching in the way it dredges up vintage cliches about the humble poor versus the venal rich. But if you're going to play this game, you should at least play it up big--like, say, Titanic, which also features a poor, gifted artist who pines for a society girl. Great Expectations is halfheartedly socially conscious. Cuaron sets up a rich vs. poor morality play, but he's not the kind of artist who's good at carrying out social agendas. He's too generous for that. The sequences involving the New York art-gallery world ought to release his imagination--after all, it's another phantasmagoria for him to explore.

All sorts of opportunities for social observation in Great Expectations sail blithely by. Finn, for example, carries on like a prole sufferer on his way to hitting it big. If the film were sharper, it might point up the comedy in this situation--Finn has inadvertently created the perfect persona for art-world celebrity. But it's difficult to care about Finn; he's always being acted upon.

Paltrow's Estella may be the bad girl of the piece, but under the circumstances she's a real room-brightener. Paltrow is well cast: There's a vibrant blankness in her liquid lankiness and fine-cut bones; she's so pretty she's Pop--porcelain Pop. And Paltrow is a good enough actress to suggest the cruelty behind Estella's dazzle; she enjoys how her unreachability keeps Finn forever reaching out for her. There's an erotic charge to her taunts, and, in at least one sequence, the eroticism is played out. This is daring--for one brief, shining moment it looks as though Great Expectations is going to become a disturbing mixture of fable and carnal fantasia.

Cuaron is a special talent, and, as botched as Great Expectations often is, it's the kind of failure that deserves an audience--if only to experience Cuaron's way of seeing, which is at its best in the early parts of this film. He can draw you so far inside a child's eye that the screen shimmers with possibilities. Perhaps what drew Cuaron to Finn was his humility. This director must be a very humble man to be so totally in communion with a child's vision. See it for that communion.

Great Expectations.
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron. Written by Mitch Glazer. Starring Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anne Bancroft, and Robert De Niro. Opens Friday.

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