John Malkovich puts a real shine on role of selfish prig

May 30, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Nothing like being down and out in a five-star London hotel. The servants look at you so uncomprehendingly and with such hurt in their eyes when, for the 10th consecutive day, you claim you don't have any change to tip them. And dodging that manager! That can be quite an ordeal.

This is how the other half swindles. Tina and Jake, beautiful and worthless, are used to traveling first class and have convinced themselves that they deserve it. The fact that they have no money seems like a nasty bit of luck. So irritating.

Tina and Jake, played with silky arrogance by Andie McDowell (still not an actress but still great in rich-girl roles like this) and John Malkovich (every inch an actor and at his best as an insufferably arrogant prig), are the antagonists in Michael Lindsey-Hogg's comedy of bad manners and good art, "The Object of Beauty," opening today at the Charles.

At some level, in fact, the movie is about the healing power of art. Its centerpiece is a small Henry Moore statuette worth about $40,000, which Tina owns; everybody who sees it is profoundly moved, though not always by aesthetic pleasure. Jake, for one, sees it as the pivotal element in an insurance scam that will liberate him from those can't-pay-my-bills blues.

But when a deaf-and-dumb hotel maid sees it, she takes it. Hers is the only genuine response: She must have it, for it speaks of the beauty and grace that is otherwise missing from her bleak life. That theft sets in motion a complicated set of schemes as each character in the story is set in motion to reacquire the piece, the reasons being completely reflective of the character of the character.

As a plot, "The Object of Beauty" could be a bit more deft; it's strung out too long and seems to have some trouble staying in gear. But at the same time it's vividly amusing, particularly as Malkovich seems to be doing an update on his predatory seducer role in"Dangerous Liaisons." No actor around manages to make selfishness seem like a character strength with quite the same aplomb. Malkovich is cold, commanding, utterly shallow, sublimely self-confident and wholly without moral fiber.

He's a perfect icon of the times, the yuppie grifter for whom the world and its softer aspects -- compassion, consideration, concern -- simply do not exist. He's attractive on film exactly to the degree that he would be horrifying in life, because he knows what he wants and is not held back by doubts. He's a shark in pleats and watching the movie is like a trip to the aquarium.


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