Film/TV » Film Features


Iris ignores the work of its subject; 40 Days and 40 Nights is just plain dumb.



Iris arrives in Memphis the recipient of three Oscar nominations in acting and none elsewhere. For once in Oscar history, this makes complete sense, because if there was ever such a thing as a mediocre film filled with wonderful acting, Iris is it.

The film is about the British novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, who died in 1999 after developing Alzheimer's a few years before. The film is based on two memoirs --Elegy for Iris and Iris and Her Friends -- written by Murdoch's husband, the literary critic John Bayley.

It's difficult to resist comparing Iris to A Beautiful Mind, another recent biopic about a great intellect (economist John Forbes Nash) succumbing to a mind-inhibiting condition -- and also one in which inspired acting outshines the film itself. Iris is being advertised with the meaninglessly vague tagline "Her greatest talent was for life," which is similar to the soundbite prominently featured in the trailer for A Beautiful Mind, which went something like "It's a fine thing to have a beautiful mind, but it's far better to have a beautiful heart."

At the risk of sounding like a bad stand-up comic, what's the deal with these movies? Is this a strategy to reassure audiences who not only can't compete with the intellectual talents of a Nash or Murdoch but whom filmmakers fear would be uninterested in or intimidated by a serious investigation of the subjects' work? Why else this seemingly deliberate strategy of downplaying the life's work of these two highly accomplished subjects? Both films seem more interested in the conditions themselves than in the people -- like TV disease-of-the-week movies that just happen to center on acclaimed protagonists.

But the odd catch here is that the PBS-arty Iris is actually far more flawed in this regard than the Ron Howard-directed Hollywood hokum of A Beautiful Mind, which actually does have a few compelling scenes that map the contours of Nash's considerable mind. Those who've never read Murdoch aren't likely to learn much about her work from this film. Not a single work of hers is explored in anything more than a passing or vague allusion and very little detail of her literary or intellectual achievements is provided beyond a couple of speeches in which Murdoch offers trenchant but extremely broad comments on the centrality of language to the human experience.

Part of the problem is that Iris doesn't explore the whole of Murdoch's life. It instead cross-cuts between two distinct segments -- the early Oxford courtship between Murdoch and Bayley (played by Kate Winslet, who must have a contractual clause that compels her to appear nude in every film she makes, and Hugh Bonneville) and the later years when Bayley becomes caretaker of his Alzheimer's-stricken companion (played by Jim Broadbent and Judi Dench). This strategy has its uses, of course, allowing the film to bypass the predictable narrative arc that so many biopics lapse into. But it also only worsens the film's short-changing of Murdoch's career, the gap between the two periods being when almost all of her writing was done.

So what we have is a fairly familiar story about the difficulties of aging and the development of a relationship, and one saved by the tremendous achievements of the film's four leading actors. Winslet and Dench and Bonneville and Broadbent make us believe they are the same people seen from different vantages. Bonneville's portrait of a nervous, doddering old man living in a young man's skin may be a bit of a caricature, but the other three actors -- all Oscar nominees and all frequently great (see Broadbent, especially, in Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy) --deliver performances that rise above their otherwise mundane surroundings. -- Chris Herrington

From the booming dot com its hero works at to the image of San Francisco as a playground for women out of Playboy, everything in 40 Days and 40 Nights feels out of place. Billed as a sex comedy without the sex, this Josh Hartnett vehicle from Miramax is hinged on a single joke that wouldn't keep the laugh track of a half-hour sitcom running.

Hartnett stars as Matt Sullivan, a handsome, sweet Web designer who's still languishing after being dumped by his beautiful but bitchy ex, Nicole (Vinessa Shaw). Although he's meeting and bedding plenty of women, he can't help but feel he's falling into a black hole. Most notably, he's haunted by the image of his ceiling cracking above him. So, in an effort to kill his inner demons, Matt seizes on an unusual, slightly crazy plan. Constantly seeking advice from his older brother, John (Adam Trese), who's a seminarian on his way to becoming a priest, Matt decides to give up sex and all its forms (which extends to touching, kissing, and masturbating) for Lent. Taking a vow to give up the thing most dear to him, Matt hopes to get his mind back in gear and his life back to normal -- or so he thinks.

But the best-laid plans When Matt's horny roommate, Ryan (Paulo Costanzo), hears about his buddy's scheme, he spreads the word to Matt's co-workers. Complicating matters even further is Erica (Shannyn Sossamon), a beautiful and spunky girl Matt meets at the laundromat one night. Matt immediately falls for Erica but their coupling is obviously compromised by his vow.

40 Days works off a repeated carrot motif, constantly dangling temptation in the face of its hot-blooded American male. And as the days tick by, the rat becomes more and more unwound. Looking like a junkie needing a fix, Hartnett grows pale, gets bags under his eyes, and begins to twitch as his celibacy stretch lengthens. The low point comes when, in a dream, he sees himself soaring over clouds made out of breasts.

The annoying roommate (and Costanzo is particularly grating as a mean-spirited foil who dresses like Ricky Martin) and the office geeks combine for a disappointing peanut gallery. From the boys who spike his drink with Viagra to the girls who make out in front of him, everyone has a plan to make Matt take the dive on their day.

Like the jokes that constantly miss their mark, 40 Days never answers the seminal question its hero asks: What's the point of all this? The stupidity and uselessness of Matt's vow is apparent from the get-go, and while he may need 40 days to figure it out, the audience doesn't need two hours. -- Rachel Deahl

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