Tuesday, July 18, 2006

111. "He's a baby man." -- Helen Webber

Blast from the Past (1999) is one of those movies that permeates basic cable--and that I have yet to tire of. It's instructive of the importance of fundamentals: good cast, good production design and set decoration, good costumes--and a script that manages to be both sentimental and satirical, just off-balance enough to teeter toward its own center of gravity, not firm but still standing. We end up with the movie equivalent of one of Helen Webber's (Sissy Spacek) home-cooked meals: It may not be good for you, but who doesn't like gravy?

At the center of the movie, though, is Brendan Fraser--and was it David Thompson who called him "Cary Grant’s goofy nephew"? This pretty much captures his charm. And it's not in the movie's later scenes, when he becomes a "good man" as Troy (Dave Foley) advises, and is able to look Eve (Alicia Silverstone) in the eye and compel her to admit she loves him. No, what we remember is the fallout shelter scenes, and the babe-in-the-L.A.-woods moments as he delights in children and the sky and "Oh my lucky stars! A Negro!" and thanks people for calling him on the telephone. That is, the closer Adam is to his parents (Spacek and Christopher Walken--and I need to jump up and down about both of them some day) and the closer the script pays attention to his smooth-skinned innocence--this thirty-five-year-old man who looks twenty-five, God bless filtered air and pot roast--the funnier and sweeter--and, in its way, more complex--the film becomes.

Again, the script asks us to laugh at the hermetically sealed and preserved values Adam holds out to the world--then, little by little, to become attracted to them, and not in any overtly sentimental way. There's a scene in which Troy and Eve discuss Adam. Troy recounts Adam's definition of good manners: "a way of showing other people we have respect for them." And he muses, "See, I didn't know that, I thought it was just a way of acting all superior." It is a small moment, as when Eve gives in to Adam's need to pray over their diner lunch, or when Adam punches Eve's best boyfriend with a series of apologetic but expertly timed jabs whose only function is to keep the other man at bay. We do not even need to indulge in the broader strokes, the sudden encounters with contemporary sexuality and misguided religious ecstasy in the presence of the last nuclear (ha ha) family. It's enough to note that Blast from the Past works as a script--but is completed by its performances. Fraser can tilt his head exactly like a puppy, and is not averse to splay-footed Jerry Lewis shtick if need be. Again, like Cary Grant, he is willing to look silly for the sake of his character, filling in the blanks left by hunk-dom and giving us enough character-layers to keep us guessing.

In Blast from the Past, Fraser re-establishes the ability of wide eyes and an honest smile to enlist the audience to his cause; I would suggest this is also the mark of great silent actors, like Chaplin, but Fraser has yet to take control of his career enough to decide what variety of Little Tramp he's meant to be. He has offered hints, in Gods and Monsters (1998) and Crash (2004), and we might see him more clearly opposite another actor of left-field charm, Michael Keaton, in the upcoming The Last Time, but in the meantime I will depend on Blast from the Past to convey to me Fraser's honest intentions.


Anonymous said...

You have NAILED why Brendan Fraser is my favorite actor! He is a chameleon that can be "the wide-eyed innocent", the action hero (as in The Mummy), the romantic (as in Still Breathing-a film I HIGHLY recommend!)or the "fish our of water" (Encino Man). He has always reminded me of Cary Grant in the aspect of his ability to move so seamlessly between comedy and drama. AND he is easy on the eyes, like Grant! ;)

Anonymous said...

It's wonderful to see someone who understands and appreciates Mr.Fraser's talent. Much too often he's cast aside as nothing but a goofball.

The Passion of Darkly Noon is another very serious one. If you want to see more of his dramatic work I suggest that one, though it is pretty...well I suppose the only word for it would be intense.

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