Slick production glosses over genuine issues


July 10, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"Regarding Henry" is a slick, well-machined piece of commercial tripe that should earn several millions of dollars for each of the cynics associated with its manufacture. I say "manufacture" rather than "creation" because it feels processed by the Hollywood epiphany machine that sells redemption-lite for under 10 bucks at your local bijoux. It hasn't got a sincere bone in its nautilized body; it makes "Dying Young" look like a documentary on Mother Teresa.

In past decades, movies like this turned on religious events, the intercession of a celestial being who watched out for the little people. Frank Capra could bring it off once in a while and almost no one else. Angels abounded, usually merry little men with twinkly eyes and the folksy wisdom of the Almighty coursing through their veins. In our secular age, of course, any references to God or his agents have been banned by the marketing departments; instead, we have a different sort of faith: political // correctness.

The movie is PC to the max and its development clearly dates from that period in cultural history about 12 months ago when PC was in full swing but Newsweek hadn't noticed it yet and the backlash hadn't been officially launched. Thus, sanctimonious moral obviousness informs its narrative method. It's primer-simple: See Henry the lawyer. See Harrison Ford play him. See him be bad. See him rob from the poor and give to the rich.

Now see him get punished. See the bullet hole in his head. See him fall. See him suffer. But not too much, because we don't

want to depress the audience so far we can't bring it back.

See Henry recover (screen time: three minutes, 26 seconds). Only now, see him purified. See him ask the "simple" questions that are really the "hard" questions. See him repudiate his old values as he defines new ones. See him learn to love his wife and darling daughter. See him redeemed. See the movie end on an up beat.

It's somewhat stunning that a director as intelligent as Mike Nichols should lend his talents to so greasy a con job as this and make it even greasier. Nichols hurtles us through the setup with an alacrity that's truly brilliant. The first 20 minutes of "Regarding Henry" ought to be interred at the USC film school as the study guide for Remedial First Acts 101. Nichols doesn't waste a shot: He gets to the point, cuts to the next scene. He doesn't tarry over the tragedy, the legal repurcussions, the grief, Henry's wife's natural ambivalence, et al, because he's not really interested in them. They don't sell tickets.

Alas, too much of Ford's performance is about hair. As Henry Turner, corporate schmuck first class, he wears his slicked back so that he looks like an oily copper-point bullet. After his truly horrifying wounding -- Henry walks in on a robbery in a store and takes two shots in vital spots -- and his truly miraculous (and fast!) recovery, his hair is thatchy, dry and cute, like Huck Finn's. He's boyish; he wears sneakers and a windbreaker and makes goo-goo eyes at the world. He's been infantilized.

Meanwhile, poor Annette Bening is soldiering on in the thankless role of Valiant Wife, another '30s staple, usually played by Donna Reed. There's no personality to play here, only a cluster of virtues. Bening works hard against the chipper hopelessness of her situation. She does demonstrate an incredible physical elasticity; she is, by haphazard turns as the script demands, a beautiful Manhattan sophisticate, a rather dumpy hausfrau, or still again a spunky Sarah Brady (the story has unconscious echoes of the Jim and Sarah Brady ordeal, by the way, not that it does a damned thing with them).

Of course what "Regarding Henry" is really selling is a plasticized '90s idea: that it is somehow possible to recover your moral core without having to work very hard. This position requires merely the acceptance of certain givens: that adult life -- particularly the practice of an unsavory profession such as the law -- is ipso facto corruptive and can only be cleansed by severe brain damage, and that will power or character need not be a factor.

It extols the higher wisdom of the idiot-savant, as poor Henry, in his differently abled consciousness, is granted the moral clarity denied the rest of us. He's been restored to childhood innocence and the movie insists on seeing it as an uplifting experience. It's even funny when he asks a question of utter naivete. Pardon me, but the death of a sensate intelligence seems to me tragic; the reduction of rationalism to Pablum, however politically correct, is a horror, not a miracle.

Worse, you feel whipped and pummeled by the script, which slides over dilemmas or refuses to face them. In one stroke, "new" Henry betrays his old law firm by passing on confidential information to an opposing lawyer. They deserve it; it was the information by which he won for them a morally doubtful $H decision. However, it does seem that the old firm believes in the virtue of loyalty; it has apparently returned Henry to full-salaried partnership even though he is incapable of working the Xerox machine. Once again, no good deed has gone unpunished.

In the end, after the cheesy music sends you out on an aerosol high, you may find it difficult to hold this "Henry" in much regard.

'Regarding Henry'

Starring Harrison Ford and Annette Bening.

Directed by Mike Nichols.

Released by Twentieth Century Fox.

Rated PG-13.

... **

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