Bruce Willis is playing a man 'without a moral code' in his latest movie

A VACATION FROM HEROISM

April 21, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

NEW YORK — His most recent movie was the epic bomb of last year, the most reviled film in many a moon, pummeled from coast to coast, leading a studio almost into bankruptcy.

His new movie will probably not do so hot, either, being a depressing study of wife abuse, drug abuse and murder.

So why is this man smirking?

He's smirking not out of memory of "Bonfire of the Vanities" and "Mortal Thoughts." He's smirking not because he's supposed to smirk but because he likes to smirk. He's smirking because his wife is beautiful and pregnant and has orange hair. He's smirking because everybody says his summer movie, "Hudson Hawk," will be a giant hit. He's smirking because he's on the cover of Premiere magazine.

He's smirking because, bopping along, singing a song, loosey-goosey and makin' with the hubba-hubba, he's that Jersey guy of all Jersey guys, Bruce Willis.

The Willis smirk is the rock upon which the Willis church is built, and smirk he does, and now, radiating bartender's bonhomie and Kevlar attitude, his hair just slightly mussed and moussed, he's politely hanging out in a swank hotel to discuss "Mortal Thoughts," in which he plays a very low Jersey guy who likes to cuff his poor wife around.

The movie turns on the relationship of two women, childhood friends played by Willis' wife, Demi Moore, and Glenne Headly, who now run a small Bayonne beauty parlor. One of them is married to an abusive lout, and soon enough their thoughts turn to murder. Willis is the lout, Jimmy Urbanski. He's the compleat creep: wife beater, drug abuser, snarling curser and cursing snarler, come-on artist and takeoff artist. It's a far distance from the Beretta-toting supercop John McClain he's played in two successive "Die Hard" hits.

"I didn't have any doubts," he says, however. "In fact, that's what attracted me to Jimmy Urbanski. I've been playing a lot of heroic men, men with codes. It was exhilarating to play somebody without a moral code."

The performance, easily the guilty-pleasure highlight of "Mortal Thoughts," is so natural it does give one pause.

With his smirk broadening until it reaches nuclear proportions, the extremely likable Willis merely deflects queries on method acting by saying, "I stayed up many late nights during the '80s 'studying.' I've experienced this kind of non-restraint."

But more generally of his performance, he says, "It's nice not to have to be the hero."

He's certainly not dressed as a hero. Willis has come before us in what might be called the very model of modern movie star eccentricity: brand new Jack Purcell tennies, so white they look like porcelain teeth, no socks, some kind of floppy tan herringbone double-breasted suit over a green Ike golf cardigan and a white T-shirt.

Also, two days' worth of carefully nurtured whiskers, a fuzzy gray sheen of pelt that's just edging toward the itchy stage. At least he's not wearing his hair orange, like his wife.

In one of the movie's most harrowing passages, he brutalizes her terribly in the back of a van, though as the movie has it, he's not married to her but to Headly.

"We filmed that over three very disturbing nights. While it was unsettling, it was a very trusting environment, and I think we got to a level I'm not sure we could have gotten to otherwise.

"We have a kind of shorthand between us. We know what's scary, what's not."

Director Alan Rudolph concurs.

"They had a sense of special communication and they said, 'We can go further with this.' The irony is that I came to the project late, with no leverage; but with Demi [who produced the film] and Bruce backing me, I ended up with even more control than I would have on a film I wrote myself."

Rudolph and the Willises worked hard to keep the violence in the picture ugly and vivid.

"This is dangerous entertainment in a complacent society," says Rudolph, who's achieved something of a maverick's reputation with a series of dreamy romantic fantasies, like "Choose Me" or "Made in Heaven." "Murder is something the mob does in TTC restaurants; we have no sense of the reality of it in our lives. That makes me angry and the movie gave me a chance to vent that anger. If we're going to film a violent act, it should be just awful. They went further because they knew each other. Also, they went further in the spirit of good work. In most movies these days, actors aren't allowed to act, but only react."

Willis says his willingness to play such a scungy character with such relish stems from a deep passion "to keep myself interested."

"Doing 'Moonlighting' for 4 1/2 years left a bad taste in my mouth. It's very boring. We did 64 shows, which is like doing 32 features back to back. Playing the same guy. Not fun."

Willis also says "I'm really happy to play a supporting role. It's a relief. It satisfies me to do a really good job for three weeks, and then leave, rather than have to hang around for three months."

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