Fatal detraction

Adrian Lyne's Lolita takes the high-minded low road

Dominique Swain at least has the right flip coyness for the role, and the movie's tartest scenes are those in which her Lolita exasperates the humbug Humbert with her lowdown tastes. Lolita is a child of pop culture, and, in the movie's terms, her fetish for pulpy movie magazines and songs with lyrics like "Bongo, bongo, bongo, I don't want to leave the Congo" is distinctly all-American. But the contrast between Humbert's aggrieved European finesse--his extraction is primarily Swiss-English--and Lolita's slangy Americanism should be jauntier than it is. Lyne makes it bear too much metaphorical baggage.

It certainly is possible, though not entirely profitable, to regard Lolita as an allegory about how desiccated old postwar Europe was seduced and overwhelmed by the bright pop crud of the U.S. of A. But there should be more glee in this perception. Perhaps the reason there isn't is that Lyne is still on the side of the musty old Europeans. Nabokov, in his essay "On a Book Entitled Lolita," wrote: "Nothing is more exhilarating than philistine vulgarity." Lyne wants to expunge any vulgarity from Lolita. He wants to make an art film on the Continental model--sleek and somnambulistic. That's his idea of art.

It isn't just pop vulgarity that gets short shrift in this Lolita. Missing also is a strong sense of the absurd. Humbert and Lolita, crisscrossing the country by car and stopping at cheesy motels and remote gas stations, are a mock father-daughter duo. On the surface their spats sound like what any exasperated dad goes through with his kid--except, of course, the incestuous context is infernal. What the movie mostly misses is the awful comic irony in all this.

What it does capture, in the end, is the irony that Humbert would massacre another man for doing to Lolita what he himself has done. Quilty is the man who hounds Humbert and spirits Lolita away to his own casbah. As played by Frank Langella, he's a voluminously fetid creep whose depravities, in his few scenes, appear bottomless. He is Humbert's walking nightmare, his nemesis, his alter ego--which, of course, is why he must be destroyed. The final image of the bloodied Humbert--bereft beyond all care, mourning Lolita's lost innocence--is eloquent.

What all this means, I fear, is that Lyne's Lolita works best as a classy horror film. This approach is not inappropriate to the material, but it's a vast diminution of what might have been. I realize this movie is not intended as a substitute for the book, and I have attempted to discuss it with that in mind. But the book keeps calling me back. Nabokov's masterpiece touched on so many senses and caught the reader up in such a frightful whirligig of ardor and mischief and woe that it remains one of the most supremely unclassifiable great books. Lyne's version, by contrast, is essentially a long and lugubrious lamentation. It may be his Lolita, but it's not mine.

Directed by Adrian Lyne. Screenplay by Stephen Schiff. Starring Jeremy Irons, Dominique Swain, Melanie Griffith, and Frank Langella. Opens October 16.

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