In The Cut

October, 2003, Drama

Directed by:Jane Campion

Starring:Meg Ryan, Mark Ruffalo, and Jennifer Jason Leigh

Turgid (tur' jid) adj. (From the Latin, turgidus, to be swollen) Distended or bloated in style or language

Webster's New Riverside University Dictionary

A decade ago, New Zeeland director Jane Campion emerged as an overnight sensation with The Piano, her examination of 19th century female sexuality as traced through an arranged marriage (between Holly Hunter and Sam Neil) irrevocably shattered by her highly-charged affair with Harvey Keitel, a Brit gone native whose guiltless, carnal appetites liberate Hunter's Scottish prissiness.  In it, Campion's focus on the societal roles assigned women that thwart the free and full expressions of their sexuality reached a level of clarity only hinted at in Sweetie, her debut film. After Piano, Campion revisited this issue in Holy Smoke, in which Kate Winslet's lushly exposed Rubenesque charms had the same bewildering effect on a Harvey Keitel now embodying the repressed persona Neil's cuckold displayed in the previous film. Smoke didn't make much narrative sense, but it certainly displayed a Winslet succulent enough for the randiest of old goats. If nothing else, the film strongly signaled that in her next film, Campion might be well advised to move on to a new subject, since she'd exhausted the feminist implications of her topic. Unfortunately, she didn't.

At age 42, Meg Ryan embodies Hollywood's contemporary notion of Shirley Temple, but what's an actress to do when she reaches that "certain age" when cute isn't quite as marketable as is used to be? Someone, (the actress herself perhaps?) decided she needed to move on too, tackling something darker and more mature. Unfortunately, she did.

The result? This train-wreck of a movie, which Campion co-wrote and directed, employs Meg's frown and as much of her naked flesh as an "R" rating will allow to absolutely disastrous effect on their respective careers. (The film is showing in three completely different types of theaters here in New York, a strategy suggesting its distributor doesn't know quite what to do with it either.)

Meg plays a sexually-repressed teacher, (at either the high school or college level) who's tutoring a ghetto kid in creative writing in exchange for his assistance in helping her build a list of hi-hop slang she wants to use in background research for her work in the classroom. While having a cup of coffee with him in a sleazy pool hall, she witnesses a sexual tryst involving a man with a unique tattoo and a woman with the kind of bizarrely colored fingernails usually found on young girls running cash registers in inner-city grocery stores. Meg subsequently learns that a young woman has been viciously murdered at the pool-hall, information she learns while being interrogated by Mark Ruffalo, a brash, foul-mouthed homicide detective who's assigned to the case. Despite her deeply withdrawn demeanor, Meg's instantly attracted to the mulish Ruffalo, but then she notices that he's wearing the very same tattoo she saw in the darkened back room of the pool-hall…

Well, the murders continue, (as they often do in this kind of picture) Ruffalo grows more sensitive--at least in comparison with Nick Damici, his equally gross partner, and Meg tries to come to grips with her feelings of disgust/lust for her cop by seeking advice from half-sister Jennifer Jason Leigh, who lives above a strip-joint while facing trial for harassing a married doctor she's been sleeping with. Adopting Oscar Wilde's strategy that, when faced with temptation it’s best to just give in to it, Meg soon finds herself bedding Ruffalo, who turns out to be such a manly guy he's able to satisfy her with moves that go way beyond the missionary position. Stunned, perplexed and definitely interested in more of the same, Meg continues to see Ruffalo even as the evidence mounts he may be working a case in which he's both cop and perp. How is Meg going to reconcile the conflicted mass of quivering flesh she's become? Can she find happiness with an inarticulate policeman? Can she ever regain the tattered self-esteem she's traded for her erotic education? 

And so it goes, from one dopey sequence to the next, in a story that lacks even rudimentary time-line continuity and abounds in scenes lobbed in to clumsily introduce clues destined for later developments in the action. (My favorite? The one in which Meg learns how to shoot a handgun, so that a revolver can be moved from an ankle holster to the coat pocket of Ruffalo's sport coat. Most idiotic line? Ruffalo muttering, "There's something I don't know about the victim's apartment, and I don't know what it is."). This celluloid turkey limps to a close as Meg, barefoot and drenched in blood, wanders across a freeway to rejoin the lover she's handcuffed to a radiator….

Campion and her cinematographer, intent on eliminating any hint of subtlety, bathe these proceedings in grimy, soft-focus shots that constantly chop off the natural shapes of the actors’ bodies and their surroundings to pound home how incomplete these lives are, so badly damaged because they can't give proper expression to their sexuality. Instead of conveying this idea for the third time in as many movies however, Campion succeeds producing it's precise opposite, presenting yet another story of a young woman who's both incomplete and unfilled until she has a man in her life, however scruffy and crud-filled the circumstances of their romance. If this film had been made by any of Hollywood's small legion of macho-male filmmakers, feminists would be up in arms; as it is, they'll have to pray for damage control by hoping that the box-office receipts for this movie hover just below the price of a pair of stretch pants on sale at Macy's. 

Certain truly awful movies, like Mommy Dearest or Valley of the Dolls are sufficiently campy to permit guilt-free enjoyment of their cheesiness; but the ponderous variety, (Brian de Palma's Bonfire of the Vanities or Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate) nearly become too painful even to describe; like a large serving of under-seasoned and overcooked brussel sprouts, they're simply to be avoided at all costs. This one's squarely in the latter category.

Recommendations? Jane: move on. Meg: move back--quickly, and try to find a director who can turn you into a 21st century version of Doris Day or Betty Hutton--it's the best you can hope for.  

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