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Dancer Upstairs, The

Reviewed By Joe Cooper
Posted 06/30/03 06:27:04

"A reminder that great actors do not necessarily make able directors."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

John Malkovich’s directorial debut is more than a disappointment. Rather than the intended snappy political thriller entwined with a poignant romantic drama, The Dancer Upstairs, based on Nicholas Shakespeare’s novel of the same name, is a borderline joke and an embarrassing reminder that great actors do not necessarily make able directors.

Continuing a fine Hollywood tradition of assuming that all of the United States’ southern neighbours are on the verge of Che Guevara-style violent political revolutions, The Dancer Upstairs introduces the simmering nation of “Somewhere in Latin America”.

However, rather than by the usual group of aspiring Marxists or wannabe fascists, the democratically elected government of Somewhere is threatened by a mysterious collection of zealots with no other agenda but to install the equally mysterious Ezequiel as ‘el Presidente’.

To accomplish their task, the revolutionaries spend a couple of years getting to know the rural peasants before unleashing a nauseating and absurd reign of terror on the urban-dwelling government. Hanging dogs from lampposts, unleashing Uzi-wielding teenage girls on unsuspecting politicians, and using chickens as suicide bombers are some of the milder tactics being employed in the attempt to raise Ezequiel to the throne.

Of course, the government’s not sitting on its hands while the dog and chicken show is underway. They promptly assign the naďve and idealistic Agustin Rejas (Javier Bardem) to track down and bring the terrorists to justice. While on the trail of the killers, Agustin takes time out to fall in love with his daughter’s aging ballet teacher.

Javier Bardem does what he can with a very limited role. The Oscar-nominee (for Before Night Falls, not this film), for a time at least, saves The Dancer Upstairs from the clutches of the exploding chicken nonsense. As a very moralistic policeman in a sea of corruption and political zeal, the Spanish actor is suitably convincing and able to engender a fair amount of empathy. The ability is there and it makes the forthcoming Killing Pablo (in which Bardem plays the lead role of Pablo Escobar) all the more enticing.

Where Bardem succeeds, the actress portraying his character’s love interest fails dismally. As Yolanda the dance instructor, Laura Morante (Hotel) inexplicably alternates between wooden and melodramatic. When she’s apparently meant to be seducing Rejas, she appears morose and almost sedated. However, when the city experiences a blackout she camps up her character’s fear of the dark like a performer in a pantomime for the hard of hearing. Only devoted fans of the Italian actress could be pleased with her appearance in The Dancer Upstairs.

John Malkovich’s filmmaking efforts could be accused of being self-indulgent. Rather than devoting time to fleshing out such characters as Rejas’s wife, Yolanda and Ezequiel, as well as providing an insight into the terrorist group’s motivations, the novice director appears to amuse himself with an excessive emphasis on the exploding poultry, gun-toting schoolgirls and canine lynchings. It can only be guessed that his status as a great actor (and he is) prevented anyone at Fox Searchlight from airing the voice of reason before The Dancer Upstairs was released.

On a bright note, Malkovich does grasp the power of music. The use of a moving Nina Simone classic at the film’s beginning and end, and a haunting “All Along the Watchtower” performed by Yul Anderson, adds a touch of style to an otherwise lacklustre production, and presents a small glimmer of hope for the scowling one’s future as a director.

The Dancer Upstairs is a similar experience to arriving home to find that a long awaited parcel from Amazon has finally arrived, in the company of six or seven overdue bills.

Yes, there’s potential entertainment in John Malkovich’s directorial debut, thanks mostly to the book’s legacy, but it can’t be enjoyed when there’s so much else to be groaned about.

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