This summer, several movies feature theme of redemption

August 19, 1991|By Philip Wuntch | Philip Wuntch,Dallas Morning News

Is Hollywood re-thinking its moral values? Do movie makers consider a clear conscience more desirable than a large bank account? Has everyone from the Terminator to the Valley teens in "Bill & Ted" taken President Bush's "kinder, gentler" words to heart?

Probably none of the above.

But, as the late film historian Arthur Knight said, "Movies, like bananas, come in bunches." And, in the waning summer of 1991, the biggest bunch of movies deals with redemption.

In "The Doctor," William Hurt plays an aloof surgeon who, in the tradition of "physician, heal thyself," becomes a slightly self-righteous do-gooder after enduring treatment for throat cancer.

In "Doc Hollywood," Michael J. Fox seems perfectly suitable for the occupation of Beverly Hills plastic surgeon. However, after a visit to Grady, S.C., the "Squash Capital of the South," he's ready to give it all up for the serenity of small-town life.

Harrison Ford is first a heartless attorney, a patronizing father and an indifferent husband in "Regarding Henry." After recovering from a gunshot wound to the head, he becomes a puppy-loving daddy and a thoughtful mate who no longer likes designer suits and opts for a house in the country.

The list of redeemed heroes goes on. In "Boyz N the Hood," Cuba Gooding Jr. finally embraces the peaceful teachings of his honorable father rather than taking the violent, vindictive route selected by his friends. And virtually every critic has remarked on the change in moral fiber of Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Terminator 2." Schwarzenegger was a destroyer in the original movie, but he's a protector in the new film, which promises redemption for the entire human race. Even the characters of Bill and Ted, never known for searching their souls, get a chance to redeem themselves in the face of the Grim Reaper in "Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey."

Traditionally, Hollywood has favored crowd-pleasing endings that provide easy answers to complex questions. But not since the Depression and the early World War II years have films so resolutely insisted that the best things in life are (well, sometimes) free. Are filmmakers overcompensating for the excesses of the 1980s, in which movies such as 1981's "Arthur" and 1990's "Pretty Woman" (created and filmed at the end of the 1980s) equate financial privilege with extreme pleasure?

But not all the films are having the desired effect. Despite the honorable decision of its protagonist, showings of "Boyz N the Hood" have been accompanied by violence.

More disturbing is the minor role of female characters in the midst of all this rebirth. Elizabeth Perkins' cheerful, terminally ill cancer patient shows Mr. Hurt the way to inner peace in "The Doctor," but her character undergoes no major changes. And in "Regarding Henry," when Mr. Ford tells his wife, played by Annette Bening, that he wants to give up his law practice, she responds with, "Whatever you want, dear." She has been redeemed, too, but in the broadest form of emotional shorthand.

But the moral redemption of the traditional money-hungry male is this summer's movie motif. Hollywood failed at making a good film out of "The Bonfire of the Vanities," the ultimate yuppie comeuppance novel. Perhaps directors are going to try again, in various formats, until they finally get it right.

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