Weird science

The season began unspectacularly, with no sign of questionable new trends. Then slowly but surely, this summer's insidious onslaught made itself known. First, Eddie Murphy's Nutty Professor, an obese research scientist, discovers a "secret formula" through which he can re-create himself by transforming his own DNA. Next, in Multiplicity, Michael Keaton undergoes an "experimental process" wherein he is cloned from a single living adult into any number of fully grown duplicates.

All this may seem harmless enough, but what is odd is how in both movies, neither the "formula" nor the "process" gets anything more than a quick nod from the filmmakers or the participants themselves. It may be the entire premise of the film--and the single most life-altering event the main characters have ever endured--but apparently that is no reason to weigh down the bouncy narrative with anything resembling an explanation of how any of these discoveries is supposed to work.

It seems fitting, then, having spent the rest of the summer working our way through mystical brain tumors in Phenomenon, psychokinetic schoolgirls in Matilda, and even ghost-chasing gadabouts in The Frighteners, that the season should reach a stopping point with Jack.

True to form, the scientific underpinnings of the story are flimsy as can be, and breeze by us: Poor Robin Williams develops a "rare disease" that ages his body at a rate four times faster than normal. One of the peculiar constants in movies like this is how science gets characterized--even when used with Frankensteinlike disregard for the consequences--as being essentially benevolent, or at the very least nothing to fear. Jack doesn't contract the devastating illness that kills children by giving them advanced rheumatoid arthritis and coronary deterioration before they turn 8; that would be too sick for a fanciful coming-of-age parable, even one so replete with bathroom humor. Instead, Jack suffers from a cute, fun, almost enviable disease, the kind family comedies can safely be built around. Jack may look 40, but he's really just 10, see, so he may be a confused little boy, but he's stuck in an overgrown body--an innocent child with Robin Williams' slapstick timing. You may recall the movie by its previous title: Big.

Genuine fantasies can claim a long and hearty tradition in the movies beginning with Georges Melies' rudimentary sci-fi epics and continuing through James Whale's horror classics and those frothy, '60s-era magical-genie adventures. But has there been any time since Kurt Russell went through puberty and graduated from Disney fluff to lead roles that there has been such a proliferation of senseless comic mayhem? More importantly, these movies aren't just about weird science, but no science at all. We are not being invited to willingly suspend our disbelief in order to transport ourselves to a new world of escapist gentility; rather, we are being fed a horse pill made up of lazy screenwriters' contrivances, and asked to swallow it whole.

Despite occasional jolts of energy and a pliant, accessible--if infrequently witty--screenplay, there is little in Jack for the audience to embrace or take to heart. Like the scientific enigma at its core, Jack is shallow and gimmicky, a symptom with no known cure.

Jack might have hit the mark more often if it was not so concerned with putting a lump in your throat and a smile on your face. Its stabs at pathos, as the young hero endures typical growing pains, are mostly predictable--what we've come to expect from this kind of elementary-school saga. (The twist here is that when the teacher rejects the schoolboy's request for a date, she is turning down an adult.) In numerous movies during the past dozen years, Robin Williams has proven himself a master of mirth. But while he has certainly expanded his range from his Mork & Mindy days, his efforts at "serious" acting have never been especially convincing; he has yet to deliver the kind of flawless, complex performance that are routine for greats like Robert Duvall and Jack Nicholson.

Orson Welles once lamented that the price to be paid for enjoying the films of great comedy directors is that eventually all those directors feel compelled to bore us with their tragedies; Williams is living proof that the same curse haunts the best comic actors. Usually Williams' shortcomings magnify themselves whenever an already weak script trots out a Big Emotional Moment, probably because he indulges his weepy, melodramatic excesses in what should be Spartan, straightforward scenes. It can be painful to watch him try to rend our hearts without earning the right to do so; his voice gets creaky, his eyes puff, his lower lip quivers...and you never believe a moment of it. Williams often seems so preoccupied with the effect he is trying to achieve that he misses the essence of the emotion completely. When Jack's tutor (Bill Cosby) points out the "look of wonder in Jack's eyes," all we see are vacant stares. In his efforts to avoid mugging directly to the camera, Williams seems self-conscious and fake. He seems far more rapt during occasional moments when he is caught off guard--when he is not trying to carry the movie but allowing other actors to develop the scene.

Despite Williams' uneven performance, real blame for the erratic failures (and mild successes) in Jack should be shouldered by the director, Francis Ford Coppola. When you think of ideal directors for movies such as this, Coppola surely is not the first name to leap to mind. In the past, when Coppola has tried to emulate a Fellini-esque carnival atmosphere, he has always been on shaky ground. That is true here as well. He assumes that because Jack is "only" a comedy, he can dust off the manual of and by rote toss out visual cliches and expect that no one will be the wiser. There is something vaguely patronizing when a director of his caliber relies on such cheap effects.

Of course, things could be worse. Maybe Coppola honestly believes that a plethora of unmotivated point-of-view shots (including one angle best described as "the FoetalCam"), needless fast-motion scenes (the clouds travel faster than in Twister), too-knowing jokes spewing from Williams' supposedly innocent mouth, and a dense concentration of "hairy" jokes add a sense of pageantry to the movie. Might Coppola be metamorphosing into a humorless version of one of his own infamous creations, Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now? Has he become so far removed from the pulse of his audience that the best he can manage with a metaphorical movie about the inner child is a slapdash hit-or-miss product like Jack?

The horror, the horror.

Jack. Touchstone. Robin Williams, Diane Lane, Bill Cosby. Written by James DeMarco and Gary Nadeau. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Opens August 9.

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