Fate really could have been kinder to Martin's Victorian 'Simple Twist'

September 02, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Some years back, the gifted Steve Martin, frustrated by the lack of good ideas and good scripts, updated Rostand's amiable 19th-century chestnut "Cyrano de Bergerac" into "Roxanne," to his own greater glory. It was a hit, a palpable hit. Now, presumably for the same reasons, he's taking the same kind of whack at George Eliot's "Silas Marner."

The score: Steve Martin 1, the 19th century 1.

Called "A Simple Twist of Fate," this is a somewhat misbegotten project that, unlike "Roxanne," can never transcend its knotty origin. It's somehow weighted down with 19th-century ideas and plot gambits that only fit awkwardly, if at all, into the 20th.

In fact, while I'm sure all other critics in the country recognized the source material instantly, yours truly, that illiterate moron, didn't; he did, however, sense the century of origin from the obsolescence of the ideas underlying it. First of these is the very substance of the title: fate. The movie is laden with portents of destiny and the belief (we would call it superstition) that some things are determined to happen by celestial powers who have a great sense of plot. Welcome to that wonderful year, 1861.

In lesser issues, 19th-century gimcracks abound in cornball profusion. I'm talking imperious aristocrats, lost gold treasures, misers, frozen, fallen women and even family skeletons both figurative and actual (in fact, "Silas Marner" might be the origin of the phrase).

Martin plays Silas redux, now called Michael McCann, a pretty hurtin' guy. (Why do comic geniuses love to play little men stepped on by the sad clown of life?) His pregnant wife, in the early going, announces to him that their expected child is: A) a girl, and B) not his. All around, not one of your better days.

Thus he divorces bitterly and retires to a rural Virginia village -- Virginia being the only state in the nation that still boasts the kind of landed horse aristocracy upon whose dastardliness Eliot's tale originally turned. There, grumpy and sour, McCann lives the life of a miserly hermit, hording gold coins in a secret compartment in a table. In Eliot's story he was a weaver and a wrongly accused thief; Martin makes him a furniture restorer and cuckold.

One night -- yes, a dark and stormy one -- a horror happens. The wild younger brother of the local aristocratic blackguard, fleeing an auto accident, breaks into McCann's house and, in the dark and in about 15 seconds, finds the carefully hidden cache of gold. The director, Gillies MacKinnon, cannot sell this absurdity, and barely tries; it's simply beyond belief and it all but stops the movie in its tracks (19th-century audiences accepted such things without pause). But shortly thereafter an almost compensatory miracle occurs: a 1-year-old girl wanders into McCann's isolated cottage.

Alas, the miracle has its dark origin. The mother, who has frozen to death, is the kept woman of a racy aristocrat (and the older brother of the thief), who has political ambitions that cause him to fear scandal and not claim his natural daughter, instead allowing McCann to raise her. Gabriel Byrne plays the dastardly John Newland, --ing and callow, yet ultimately consumed in regret. It's a much more interesting performance than Martin's, but naturally limited by the melodramatic conceit that underlies it.

The emotional core of the movie tracks McCann's return to society through the vessel of his adopted daughter, played over the years by a buoyant set of sisters (the Austins, Alana, 10, and Alyssa, 5) and twins (Alaina and Calley Mobley, 3, and Victoria and Elizabeth Evans, 1).

Clearly, this is what attracted Martin to the materials -- the theme of the noble nonbiological father. It's an intermittently wonderful, redemptive story, and Martin is at his best. His body language, for example, blossoms expansively; we watch as he seems to evolve from awkward, fragile crab into a more expansive and loving man, his body now open and vulnerable. This, too, yields the freshest and most consistent source of comedy: the awkward man hustling desperately to stay up with the demands of fatherhood.

I couldn't help wishing that he'd simply come up with a more modern story to support this core: a stepfather, say, indifferent to his new daughter, who inherits total responsibility for her after the accidental death of his wife, and who then enjoys the same kind of spiritual and emotional growth. But no.

Instead, the Victorian chains of Eliot's melodrama clank too loudly throughout, always pitching the thing toward the ludicrous. As Martin's script works it out, the aristocratic Byrne, under the influence of a scheming wife, finally brings suit against Martin's McCann for the return of his daughter. It turns into soggy, weepy courtroom drama, full of heaving bosoms and furled, manly brows, until a last-second development saves the day. And what is this development: Why, it's a hopelessly complex twist of fate.

"A Simple Twist of Fate"

Starring Steve Martin and Gabriel Byrne

Directed by Gillies MacKinnon

Released by Touchstone

Rated PG-13

**

Hear Hunter's reviews

To hear Stephen Hunter's reviews of current films, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6250 after you hear the greeting.

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