Thursday, April 25, 2013


When it appropriates an immortal literary classic, Hollywood has no qualms about rewriting the original story.  “A Little Princess” director Alfonso Cuarón and “Scrooged” scenarist Mitch Glazer maintain that venerable Tinsel Town tradition with the latest cinematic adaptation of “Great Expectations,” (*** OUT OT ****) a boy-meets-girl and boy-loses-girl tearjerker. Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Robert De Niro, and Anne Bancroft topline this entertaining but offbeat social drama.  Tony Burrough’s elegant production designs, “Reality Bites” lenser Emmanuel Lubezki’s lush cinematography, and Cuaron’s own poetic vision bolster “Great Expectations” far above Glazer’s loquacious as well as predictable screenplay. “Great Expectations” qualifies easily as either a chick flick or a date flick, unless you’re going to compare it with the six previous versions produced either for the silver screen or the boob tube.  

Unless you have scanned the Cliff Notes for “Great Expectations” recently, you may find yourself swamped by this free-spirited adaptation.  Hollywood has changed some things.   Glazer uproots the plot from its original Victorian English setting and transplants it to contemporary Florida.  Charles Dickens named his protagonist Pip, but Glazer gives him the name Finn.  Undoubtedly, literary types are struggling to figure out what a Mark Twain nickname and an Ernst Hemingway setting can have in common with a Dickens tale.  Me, too. My B.A. was in English Literature and I’ve never seen Dickens like this.  Not only does Glazer rechristen his lead character, but also he rechristens Miss Havisham as Ms. Dinsmoor.  The criminal Magwitch is now Arthur Lustig, a death-row inmate who killed a mob boss.  Estella is still Estella.  Of course, Cuarón has altered several other things, too, but that will give you literature professors something to bitch about in class.  Condensing a Dickens’ epic in less than two hours in a film with names that you can pronounce might have something to do with this nonsense.

Briefly, Finnegan Bell (Ethan Hawke of “Dead Poets Society”) takes life easy in sunny coastal Florida, just the kind of lifestyle Huckleberry Finn would yearn for in his wildest dreams.  Orphaned, Finn resides with Maggie, his weirdo sister (Kim Dickens of “Brazil”), and Joe, his lower class, brother-in-law, handyman (Chris Cooper of “Lone Star”).  Joe has trouble keeping food on the table and money in his pocket, so Maggie bails on them.  “Great Expectations” makes women look like kennel club members, while the men emerge as good people who take care of one other.  Finn spends his time cruising around in his outboard when he is not drawing pictures.  Francesco Clemente received credit for those drawings, but he must have been channeling Walter Anderson.  One day, the vicious convict Lustig (Robert De Nero of “Goodfellas”) surprises Finn and forces him to help him escape.  The escape plan goes sour for Lusting, but Finn gets away.  Finn fares far less lucky during his next encounter.  He meets an eccentric unmarried woman, Ms. Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft of “The Graduate”).  She is a dotty old dame abandoned at the altar by a worthless suitor.  Languishing away in a magnificent mansion that has gradually gone to seed since her disastrous wedding day, Dinsmoor has left things the way they had been set up for the wedding ceremony.  “Great Expectations” looks like a feminine version of “Heart of Darkness,” but let us not trash a great guy like Joseph Conrad.

Ms. Dinsmoor, it seems, wants a playmate for her snotty niece Estella, so she pages and pays for Finn.  Poor Finn is immediately entranced when he meets the cold, haughty Estella.  Estella shocks Finn with a surprise kiss at a water fountain, and the filmmakers make that a recurring scene.  When Finn reveals that he cannot dance for her, Ms. Dinsmoor allows him to draw.  Reluctant initially to pose, Estella finds herself forced to sit for his portrait.  Finn thinks she is beautiful but snobbish.  Ms. Dinsmoor lectures Finn about the incompatibility of the sexes and the irony of love.  Every time Finn meets Estella, she treats him indifferently, leaving him before anything can happen.  She is the stuck-up, ice maiden of all time until the ending, but until then Finn recklessly pursues her.  The unhappy day comes when Estella leaves Florida and travels to France for her education.  Meanwhile, Finn sticks around Florida, works with Joe as a commercial fisherman and gives up painting.  Suddenly, fortune befriends inn.  Not only does he learn a benefactor has paid his airfare to New York City, but also that an art show is scheduled for his work.  Quickly, Finn pulls together some new works and becomes an overnight sensation.  Nevertheless, he still has problems with Estella.  She takes up with a well-heeled architect, Walter Plane (Hank Azaria), and Finn’s dreams appear to elude him again—almost, but you will have to suffer through the sorrow to see what happens.

“Great Expectations” is a sensational looking picture. Emmanuel Lubezki’s picture-postcard photography is so gorgeous that at times it distracts you from the narrative.  Everything in “Great Expectations” has a soft, ethereal texture.  Tony Burroughs’ cluttered looking production designs come the closest to recapturing the Victorian spirit of Charles Dickens. The Dinsmoor mansion is fantastic in its excessive, back-to-nature grunge.  The story maybe as old as Dickens, but director Alfonso Cuarón makes it a richly palatable experience.  He jump-starts the action occasionally.  For example, during a dancing scene between the young Finn and Estella, Cuarón dissolves to the grown-up Finn and Estella without altering the scenery. Cuarón is especially adept with the appropriate light touch in treating the erotic scenes with flair and ingenuity.  Paltrow strips for Hawke in one scene (remind you of “Titanic”) so he can draw her in the nude. Meantime, the only nudity shown appears on paper.  A later erotic encounter tastefully skirts the issue by letting your imagination do the rest.  See, it’s a chick flick.

The performances are good.  Hawke’s transition from a pauper to a snooty prince of the art world is convincing.  He is very good here getting caught off-guard.  A performance isn’t really required of the willowy Paltrow.  She poses more than she performs.

If you want a good cry, “Great Expectations” will live up to your anticipations.  It’s not a “Great” movie, but it is a “Good” one.