Fine acting nearly saves cosmic 'Music of Chance'

October 27, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Oh, no! Not another cosmological, metaphorical, eschatological microcosmic/macrocosmic exploration of man's place in the universe and the role that chance and fate play in his life as he tries to escape the eternal patterns that bedevil us all! Not another one of those!

But yes, "The Music of Chance," which plays a little as if it were a "Twilight Zone" episode written by David Mamet after immersion in the works of Kahlil Gibran, pulls into the Charles for a two-day run. Philosophy students, parlor existentialists and Mandy Patinkin fans, queue up on the left; all others form up to the right. There's ample room for all, folks. No riots necessary. (Those philosophy majors get really testy if they don't get the front row, have you noticed?)

Derived from the cult novel by Paul Auster, it's the story of a man who stops to pick up a stranger and finds his whole life skewed. But his whole life was already skewed. How could he tell the difference?

What makes the film work at a level well beyond portentous nonsense is a splendid set of performances, and one so extraordinarily bad it's almost worth the price of admission. The best of the good boys is Patinkin, remote, responsible, quietly noble in his willingness to face the consequences of his life. Patinkin's Jim Nashe is an ex-Boston fireman who, given a small inheritance by a distant father, opts to spend his life driving aimlessly across America.

One day he comes across a bloody, incoherent and unstable-looking man in the cheap clothes of a petty gangster . . . and stops to pick him up? Yes, he does, don't ask me why and don't tell me you would have, too. The man claims to be a professional card player named Jack Pozzi, roughed up in a game when his marks thought he'd set them up for a robbery. The details are scant and unconvincing and Pozzi, as a representative of the irrational in the universe, is a particularly thin conceit.

This is the movie's monstrously bad performance. James Spader, who almost always plays delicate, ironic intellectuals with a bad case of ennui (or is it acne?), has been encouraged by director Philip Haas to Ratso Rizzo it up to the rafters. He thinks he's Dusty! Under a bad dye job, with what appears to be a fake mustache, and an accent as convincing as Milton Berle as Lady Godiva, he whines and bleeds, playing the agent of fate as cheapjack trash boy.

But the story intrigues Nashe: Pozzi claims he's got a couple of millionaires set up for a plucking but he's lost his stake. He needs 10grand to get into the game. So -- again the laws of reality are glibly suspended -- Nashe gives him the money in exchange for half the profits.

The two eccentric millionaires -- Joel Grey and Charles Durning -- won their initial dough in a lottery. They are white-suited angels of good fortune and quickly break the mere mortals who aspire to take them. Indebted, Nashe and Pozzi agree to build a wall -- pointless, keeping nothing out or nothing in -- in the middle of a field. They're Sisyphus pushing that rock up the mountain or Millet's Man with a Hoe, bent in ceaseless toil, without hope of salvation.

The movie is more an inquiry into philosophical states of being than a story proper. It keeps spurting off in unusual directions -- i.e., the strange "responsibility" that good-guy Nashe feels to any and everyone -- and changing tacks. Yet it's never clear enough in its meanings to be glib, nor, quite, rigorous enough in its arguments to be provocative.

Yet it's not without charm. As I say, Patinkin is especially charismatic in his quiet way, and character actors Grey and Durning, as well as the great M. Emmet Walsh, have great fun trying to beat the odds by getting an Oscar nomination. And Spader! Get this guy on Chevy Chase! Too late? OK, get him on Arsenio, quick, before the shoe polish in his hair washes out.

MOVIE REVIEW

"The Music of Chance"

Starring James Spader and Mandy Patinkin

Directed by Philip Haas

Released by I.R.S./Trans Atlantic Entertainment

Unrated

** 1/2

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