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Kiss of the Spider Woman
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by Jack Sommersby

"Hurt Helps; The Rest Hurt"
2 stars

While its lead actor deservedly won the best-actor Oscar, the nominations in the writing, directing, and picture categories were most certainly unjust.

William Hurt's phenomenal performance as a homosexual prisoner in a Brazilian jail who steadily ingratiates himself with and grows to love his political-activist of a cellmate is the only reason to get involved in the inept Kiss of the Spider Woman that blows a lot of potential due to a lot of uncreative thinking and more than a dash of flat-out incompetence. But to take Hurt's considerable work into consideration first is essential, because it's absolutely smashing and almost succeeds in redeeming this woeful enterprise that's eons near his caliber. His Molina has been sentenced to seven years for corrupting a minor (the victim being sixteen), and as a way of lifting himself above the everyday dreariness of his existence he escapes into the dreamy recesses of his mind in concocting grandiose love stories based on old movies he's seen. He keeps the basic structure and characters but embroiders with his own array of lush creations; they're hokey but never hoary because Molina invests undiluted feeling into them -- he could make even a Harlequin romance sound boisterous and enrapturing. The cellmate, Valentin (Raul Julia), has a very low-tolerance for both Molina and his stories, but he occasionally gives in due to sheer boredom and the need to temporarily escape in his mind, as well. And though he doesn't come right out and say it until later, he hasn't much tolerance for homosexuals, either. Molina knows this, and he immediately starts playing up Valentin's preconceived, stereotyped notions of him, acting far-out fey to the point where it seems to be bordering on outright parody. For a bit we think Hurt's overdoing it, but then in scenes with the warden, who's coerced Molina into spying on Valentin and relaying information back to him, and in flashbacks detailing his infatuation and flirting with the nice young waiter he corrupted, we see Molina much more toned down and down-to-earth sans drag-queen mannerisms and attitude. Hurt gives us a lucid sense of how Molina, through unchecked passion, ruined his life; and then he let's us see how that passion re-channeled through movies and imagination keeps Molina amiable amid such depressing circumstances (though this, naturally, doesn't do the whole trick: when he eventually comes off his highs, he's broken-hearted and miserable over not just his predicament but the shame and pain his crime brought to his loving mother). When Valentin grows tired of Molina's shenanigans and snaps at him, which is brought on by Molina's delectable description of the main female character of the movie, which makes Valentin yearn for his girlfriend (Sonia Braga) now out of his life, Hurt gives Molina's response, "If you've got the keys to that door, I'll gladly follow. Otherwise, I will 'escape' in my own way, thank you," a quiet power that clings.

Hurt made quite the auspicious film debut as the brilliant but wacky young scientist in the marvelous, going-for-broke sci-fi movie Altered States, where his character had so many wild ideas going through his head that it was a chore for him to actually formulate them into controlled, decipherable speech. Hurt gave him an unpredictable demeanor that alternated between jazzed-up and diaphanous -- his Eddie Jessup expended so much mental energy that you could never be sure when his highs and lows would come; and everything he did seemed fresh, as if he were making up his lines as he went along (which wasn't necessarily a bad thing due to screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky's longtime penchant for trying to pass gibberish off as dialogue). Then in the muddled thriller Eyewitness he appealingly played a nighttime janitor and hopeless romantic whose infatuation for newscaster Sigourney Weaver foolishly put him in mortal danger. In the tepid Body Heat he couldn't quite convince as a not-smart-enough, small-time lawyer who helplessly fell under femme fatale Kathleen Turner's tantalizing spell, but the role was dourly written and couldn't have been made plausible by any actor, though he did establish some apt give-and-take with his male co-stars (Turner's one-note, impersonal performance probably had something to do with this). But in the fine The Big Chill he was funny and touching as a good-natured but closed-off Vietnam vet who, like Molina, rode an air of detachment over a world he had no real affinity for. And in the flawed but watchable detective tale Gorky Park he brought stoicism and droll humor to his cynical Russian detective character; it was a brave, understated turn that went against the grain of most modern sweat-and-stubble screen cops chock-full of machismo. (When his initially reticent but emotionally reawakened Arkady reluctantly said goodbye to his tearful, destined love at the airport, it was as great a romantic moment as anything in Dr. Zhivago.) Here, Hurt takes on a role with lots of trapdoors that even the most seasoned actor could've fallen into, but, being the smart, instinctive actor that he is, he expertly sidesteps them all. When the dialogue goes overexplicit on us, Hurt cannily puts the brakes on and pulls back just in time, adjusting his inflections and putting some ironic spin on the line, making it play as if Molina knows what he's saying is cliched but can be redeemed if filled with the kind of joie de vivre only he can believe in. It's a translucent star performance that's witty and humorous and affecting -- and also vulnerable: when Molina's being verbally degraded by the warden, Molina's breaking down and weeping are perfectly modulated without being maudlin; and when he's staring across the table at the waiter, his eyes are positively quivering with enchantment that tells you that Molina will probably never fall this hard for anyone again.

Unfortunately, Kiss of the Spider Woman doesn't deserve Hurt's bravado even though it graces us with an exemplary piece of true screen acting. It's based on a well-regarded novel, and the writer who's done the adaptation is Leonard Schrader, who, with his writer/director brother Paul, was responsible for the inconsistent 1978 Blue Collar that never could find a dramatic consistency. So it's little surprise that Leonard and the director, Hector Babenco, haven't worked out the movie-within-a-movie aspect in either dramatic or thematic terms. The movie Molina bases his dreamscape world on isn't exactly a high piece of art (it's a trashy WWII pic set in Europe with a mediocre story and flat characters), but we need to see that Molina's unfettered imagination has vivified them enough to transform them into a highly stylized state that he can greedily feed off of. But the heroine of the movie isn't charismatic or fetching enough -- she couldn't possibly come from Molina's accentuated state that's just a mere wine cooler short of total inebriation; and for some miscalculated reason she's also played by Braga, who plays Valentin's girlfriend in the flashbacks, which simply makes no sense the way things have been laid out. Maybe if Valentin started his own fantasizing and aligned it with Molina's movie, there'd have been a seductive segueing of minds going on, but this has been neither conceived nor developed. It also doesn't help that Braga plays the heroine with a cool-bitch, detached demeanor that also doesn't figure in -- Molina would be eternally down in the dumps if this is the best his fertile mind could conjure up! And when the dream-movie's spy of a heroine who grows to love the male target she's betraying and dies trying to save him, the heavy-handedness of the foreshadowing of Molina's fate is deafening. Furthermore, the visual life of the whole thing is unaccountably drab without an ounce of graphic vitality: it looks like it was dipped in turpentine and tinged with brown dye -- even the gold glitter on the costumes in the big gala episode has the color of a urine-stained bus-depot commode. Babenco doesn't possess much of a film sense, to put it lightly, and even in the simple scenes in the jail cell he can't get much of a rhythm going -- they have the stagnant quality of a stage play inadequately opened up. And Julia, a previous stage actor, has trouble opening up, too. He overenunicates and delivers his lines too loud, as if he were projecting to the very back of a theatre, which stage actors are supposed to do but not film actors in close-in dialogue scenes in front of a camera. Julia's so off-tone he's borderline unbearable, and it's nothing short of a miracle that Hurt manages to rise above this much like Molina rises above what he's been sentenced to endure. In fact, with a better-calibrated actor to play off of, Hurt's towering work might've reached a higher plateau, and the thought of that not taking shape is a bigger tragedy that the mundane one Schrader and Babenco saddle poor Molina with in the film's egregious end.

For a superior movie-within-a-movie movie, try Bigas Luna's wonderful 1987 horror classic "Anguish."

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=5872&reviewer=327
originally posted: 12/15/10 20:50:51
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User Comments

1/10/13 Simon through Hurt's tightrope performance, fresh take on humanity's striving amid autocracy 5 stars
9/23/10 Dr.Lao Amazing 5 stars
3/05/08 mr.mike Kudos to the director and actors 4 stars
1/14/04 Betty White Incredibly engaging, greatly acted, intense drama. 5 stars
7/30/03 khaled khaled_ad2002@hotmaik.com 5 stars
4/17/03 Cherie Loved this movie. Why not tell your readers what the fuck it was about?!? 5 stars
3/21/03 R.W. Welch A bit tedious. 3 stars
3/20/03 Jack Sommersby A spellbinding, immensely moving film. Hurt is miraculous. 5 stars
10/17/02 Jessica Random Quite possibly the most moving film I have ever watched 5 stars
8/01/02 I Can't Swim Hurt/Julia dynamic duo. Movie is unforgettable. Glad Hurt won Oscar for this 5 stars
5/17/02 BLAKKRAGE666 VERY GOOD FILM. 5 stars
4/22/02 Charles Tatum Can anyone remember William Hurt appearing in anything this good in the 1990's? 4 stars
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  02-Aug-1985 (R)



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