Precious, dull 'North' is one bad movie that really goes south

July 22, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

If ever a project seemed utterly unguided by a compass, it's "North," the dreary new film from Rob Reiner.

What can have possessed the savvy pro behind "A Few Good Men," "When Harry Met Sally . . . " and "The Princess Bride" to unleash such an ingot of leaden whimsy, such a dense, witless potato latke of a movie? It's "When Zero Met Nothingness . . . "

Derived from a slight novel by Alan Zweibel (who co-wrote the script, doubtlessly to preserve his profound pensees), it's a film in which nothing works. The one thing impressive about it is the consistency of its failure.

No characters, only cutouts. North -- not the direction, the title character -- is an 11-year-old boy played by dead earnest Elijah Wood, who's done well in other films, but not here. He's a glum, joyless presence, with inert features, one of those baby grown-ups who'd be more at home in a Jules Feiffer cartoon than in an actual story. (Come to think of it, the movie feels like a Feiffer cartoon, though it lacks a shred of Feiffer's mordant wit.)

North, naturally gifted (a .406 Little League hitter with an A- average in school), is alas all but ignored by parents Jason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. If you were anticipating some of the delirious, deadpan humor that these two regularly contribute to "Seinfeld," forget it; about the only smiles you'll get from them is memories of choice "Seinfeld" moments. Instead, ++ Alexander and Louis-Dreyfus yammer past their son and each other in crude parody of work-obsessed adults.

Thus North decides to go the free-agency route. A shrewd child-journalist named Winchell (Mathew McCurley) publicizes the case, and a zany judge (Alan Arkin, a great actor who's never, ever been worse) allows the boy to find a new set of parents, with the proviso that if he fails by the end of summer vacation, he'll be remaindered to an orphanage. Of course, none this is meant to play naturalistically.

Instead, it's one of those infernal Hollywood "fantasies" -- the oppressive "Toys" comes to mind, or the dreaded "Joe vs. the Volcano," even Chris Elliott's geeky "Cabin Boy," none of which began to work -- meant to be vivid, ironic, mordant, fey, smart-alecky. Its very artificiality is part of the amusing irony of the joke. Bad mistake: no jokes. It just lies there, dim and witless, occasionally rancidly racist.

The thrust of the film follows North's undeveloped adventures with wannabe parents, desperate to adopt his adorable cuddliness. First stop is the Lone Star State, where Dan Aykroyd and Reba McEntire appear to be lost in a Ross Perot vanity production of "Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." (And, while we're on the subject of stupidity, why hire McEntire, possessor of one of the great American voices, and then undercut her one song by having her sing it with the defiantly unmusical Aykroyd?) Then it's on to Hawaii, where two vulgar Asians attempt to engage North's icy, prissy little heart. In Alaska, the boy encounters the casual blood libel that the "Eskimos," as the movie crudely terms the Native-American Inuits, practice mindless euthanasia. And on and on, the movie skitters over the globe, each set of parents coming up short against North's standards. He's too precious; after all, he is hitting .406!

Bruce Willis, usually a charmer, is miscast as the film's nominal guardian angel, who appears at key moments to give North a word or two of advice. Initially an unshaven department story Easter bunny, his disheveled cynicism is meant to provide a note or two of comedy. But he and Elijah Wood have almost no rapport; one doesn't feel any engagement between them.

Then there's another subplot that follows as the kid-journalist Winchell becomes (somehow) an instant billionaire-fascist and means to use North's quest as leverage in his war against the hated grown-ups. Unfunny. Boring. Endless.

"North"

Starring Elijah Wood and Bruce Willis

Directed by Rob Reiner

Released by Castle Rock

Rated PG

*

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