In 'Jefferson in Paris,' it's Nolte as Foundering Father

April 21, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Nothing agitates the Schadenfreude that secretly gurgles in every critic's heart more than the failure of a famous director. It's wonderful. He had so much so recently, he was so powerful and mighty, and look at him now -- we're tearing him to shreds, as if we're the important ones!

Now it's the august James Ivory's turn. After a dignified career -- "A Room With a View," "Howards End" and "Remains of the Day" to name a few -- he has crashed and burned along with the usual suspects: his longtime producer, Ismail Merchant, and his screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

"Jefferson in Paris" is pretty much a wreck. From its biggest decision to its smallest, nothing begins to work.

It doesn't even answer the most primitive of questions, such as "What is Thomas Jefferson doing in Paris?" It has no idea of him as a professional diplomat, and it never clearly defines his mission. He's in Paris, apparently, for the same reason that many college students are: to hang around and soak up local color.

The bigger question, also unanswered is, "Why is Nick Nolte playing Jefferson?" Nolte has a lot of force in macho roles ("48 Hrs." was his best), and he portrays male anguish and anger well, but no one would ever confuse him with a genius. His Jefferson, that polymath exquisitely granted several of the most munificent of intellectual gifts of his brilliant generation, seems like a guy who's hung out in the locker room too much.

There's no sparkle in his eyes, no intellectual pyrotechnics seething out of a hyper-fervid brain, no sense of being animated by the intoxicating new ideas he was himself helping to unleash and articulate -- freedom, dignity, an end to the old order and the coming of a new age. Nolte's Jefferson looks as if he could shoot a pretty good game of pool and that's about it.

He's utterly inept at evoking the central hypocrisy of Jefferson's life, that which makes him so fascinating and is the very focus of the film itself: that this architect of human freedom was himself a slave-holder. He was not unaware of the contradiction, but Nolte is simply too limited to essay much beyond a mildly scrunched-up brow, followed by a shrug.

The film pursues the line by choosing as its dramatic reality what remains only a theory to this day: Jefferson's possible sexual relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. It's a terrific idea for a movie, but not this one.

What could the estimable Jhabvala -- that connoisseur of ironies, that shrewd detective of the heart, that surgeon of the soul -- have been thinking when she created a child-like, sexually aggressive Sally Hemings, who comes on like Farina coked up on an aphrodisiac? Really, this is the most gratuitously offensive portrayal of an African-American I've seen in years, and it's completely unrelated to the authentic Sally, said to have been a cultured, educated young woman. Thandie Newton's Sally is a minstrel show creation, a massa-sayin', buck-dancing stereotype whose motives are cruelly imagined to have been greedy and narrow.

If "Jefferson in Paris" has any strengths at all, they are largely incidental. The most telling is the historical. Drawing on Jefferson's own writings, the film offers a richly ironic tour of an ancien regime on the verge of its own destruction, but blissfully unaware of the agonies that lurked just around the bend in the curve.

A most amusing scene, otherwise unintegrated into the film's larger, ramshackle structure, shows a passel of aristocrats giddily amused by the possibility of a new invention and toying with a model of it. Of course it's M. Guillotine's snazzy modern head-chopper, and we are given to know that it will soon be these powdered heads that M. Guillotine's toy will be chopping.

Perhaps Ivory is a bit undone by the licentiousness of the milieu. His best work has centered on repression and its bitter consequences. There's so much lewdness and hubbub in the Paris on the edge of explosion he seems a little intimidated and unsure. But surely the central flaw in the film, and the one from which it never recovers, is the inertness of the main performance.

"Jefferson in Paris"

Starring Nick Nolte and Thandie Newton

Directed by James Ivory

Released by Touchstone

Rated PG-13

**

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