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5 reviews, 5 user ratings

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by Peter Sobczynski

"O'Toole--Extraordinary. The Film--Extra-Ordinary"
3 stars

Although the world of cinema never tires of creating stories that pair up aging men with sexy babes young enough to be their daughters or even granddaughters–even the upcoming big-screen version of “Get Smart” will give us the sight of the 45-year-old Steve Carrell playing opposite the 20-years-younger Anne Hathaway–films that focus exclusively on May-December romances almost never work. This is because such films pit veteran actors against inexperienced ingenues and the results are almost always mismatches because they have usually been designed as showy star vehicles in which the old guys get to chew up the scenery while the young girls are given little to do other than stand around while looking pretty. (One of the few films of this type to actually work on a dramatic level was “Lost in Translation” and that was because the ingenue role was cast with an actress good enough to hold her own despite her youth.)At a certain point, virtually every actor of a certain age winds up appearing in such a film and the new comedy-drama “Venus” gives the legendary Peter O’Toole his shot at the genre. Alas, this attempt isn’t particularly successful either and not even O’Toole’s considerable charm and charisma can save it from being just another rehash of overly familiar material.

O’Toole plays Maurice, a once-famous actor who now spends his days either doing the occasional bit part (usually portraying a dying old man) or hanging around the pub with longtime colleagues Ian (Leslie Phillips) and Donald (Richard Griffiths) rehashing old theater stories, trading medications and seeing how much column space their friends rate in the obituary section. His life seems to be in a permanent rut until he is introduced to Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), Ian’s troubled grand-niece who has moved in with him in order to serve as a housekeeper and companion. On the surface, Jessie appears to be a monster–she is sloppy, unpleasant and barely knows how to work a microwave, let alone cook–but Maurice sees her as some kind of kindred spirit and finds himself completely and totally smitten by her. Of course, Jessie sees him as a doddering old but since he is willing to take her out and spend money on her, she is willing to let him indulge in the occasional bit of mild lechery and a decidedly odd but genuine friendship begins to emerge between the two.

Of course, no one else can quite see what it is that Maurice sees in Jessie and one of the main problems that I had with the film is that I could never see what he saw in her either. In creating her, director Roger Michell and writer Hanif Kureishi (whose previous collaboration, “The Mother,” was sort of a darker and inverted version of the material seen here) have giving us a character who is thoroughly unpleasant, irritating, whiny, cruel and self-absorbed from start to finish, especially in the final act. This is not necessarily a bad thing for a character in a movie to be–I suppose it beats sweetness and light–but the flaw here is that she is never unpleasant, irritating, whiny, cruel and self-absorbed in any particularly interesting way. We are supposed to believe that Maurice’s interest in her is not sexual in nature–we are pretty much informed that he is all through in that area anyway–but since every other aspect of her character suggests the kind of person who would drive you to change your seat if she sat in your vicinity at a coffee shop and since newcomer Whittaker doesn’t do anything here to suggest any hidden depths, we are forced to conclude otherwise. (Even on this coarse and base level, the character doesn’t quite work because, quite frankly, she isn’t all that attractive–she looks like one of those suburban girls who tries too hard to put up a cool and aloof front and who never quite mastered the art of applying make-up.) I never bought the on-screen chemistry between her and O’Toole for a second and since the entire film is dependent on believing in their relationship, it is a fatal blow from which it never recovers.

The hell of it is that during the brief periods when “Venus” shifts away from the core relationship, it does have its share of winning moments here and there. The scenes involving Maurice and his friends gabbing away have a loose and unforced feel that is so engaging that you’ll find yourself wishing for more of them. Additionally, Vanessa Redgrave pops up briefly as Maurice’s former wife–a woman who clearly still harbors certain feelings for her ex despite the considerable hurts that he put her and their children through years earlier–and does so much with the character in what is essentially one extended scene that she brings in more true emotion in just a few minutes than most films can muster during their entire running time. Of course, the real heart of the film is O’Toole’s performance as a character whose life has more than a few parallels with his own. It is grand of a showcase role as any actor in recent memory has had and he attacks it with such great energy and cheer that even though the story is little more than tripe, we are almost convinced otherwise based solely on what he brings to the party.

Of course, much of the advance publicity surrounding “Venus” has been centered on whether or not Peter O’Toole will finally win his first Best Actor Oscar after coming up short on seven previous occasions (though he did nab one of those honorary awards in 2004 that the Academy likes to dole out to those they have inexplicably blown off in the past). It would be great to see O’Toole finally take the stage in triumph–by my count, he should have already won the award three times over for his work in “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), “The Ruling Class” (1971) and “My Favorite Year” (1982)–but the idea of him finally scoring the Best Actor prize for this film is as unsettling as Al Pacino getting his long-overdue award for the craptacular “Scent of a Woman.” Deep down, I suppose a part of me hopes that he wins but to be honest, another part of me wishes that he could be mounting the podium as the result of a film truly worthy of his talents. The only comfort, I suppose, is that if he does win the prize, everyone will know and understand that it was because of his extraordinary career and not this particularly extra-ordinary movie.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15009&reviewer=389
originally posted: 01/19/07 02:30:33
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2006 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Chicago Film Festival For more in the 2006 Chicago Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/26/09 brian Tour de force for O'Toole, but undeniable "Eewwwww" factor" 4 stars
1/12/09 Anonymous. i think most of the "sexual" part of the film should have been omitted, but good film! 4 stars
7/28/07 Phil M. Aficionado You have to just see it for the actors doing what they do so very very well 4 stars
4/05/07 William Goss Should this be O'Toole's swan song, it's certainly a worthy one. He alone saves material. 4 stars
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  21-Dec-2006 (R)
  DVD: 22-May-2007



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