'Little Indian, Big City'**

MOVIE REVIEWS

PG"Little Indian, Big City...

March 22, 1996|By Stephen Hunter 'The White Balloon'

'Little Indian, Big City'

**; PG

"Little Indian, Big City" is one of the most successful films ever made in France. Well, what do you expect from a people who think that Jerry Lewis is a god?

The movie turns out to be so lightweight it's hard to imagine what all the fuss was about. What would Jacques Barzun say? BTC What about Truffaut? He must be doing cartwheels in his grave.

Dubbed into English, the movie's a variation on the old wild-boy-in-the-city theme. Thierry Lhermitte plays a prosperous French businessman who voyages to the Amazon, there to ask the wife who left him 13 years ago to formally sign divorce documents so that he may marry again. Lhermitte learns that he has a 13-year-old son who has been raised as an Indian and has been named Mimu-Siku (Ludwig Briand). He is further bluffed into taking the boy back to Paris with him.

What follows is a minimally interesting and extremely predictable farce in which the wild and wildly beautiful young boy all but deconstructs his father's life, while at the same time teaching him the bromide that the "natural way" is much better than the civilized way. But of course, the film can't quite commit totally to this belief, and a business subplot is hammered in by which every professional disaster turns to gold in the last reel. Maybe the civilized way isn't so bad, after all?

Everyone in the film is crudely caricatured, and there's an offensively sexualized relationship between Mimu-Siku and the daughter of Lhermitte's business partner that left me a little queasy, particularly in a PG-rated film from a Disney division. **; Unrated

Less can be more but it can also be less, too. Thus it is with "The White Balloon," an Iranian film by Jafar Panahi that won the prize for best first film at Cannes last year and has been exciting critics all over America.

Include me out. Almost nothing of consequence happens in this very slight tale, which opens today at the Charles. It's about a 7-year-old girl's stubborn quest for a goldfish on New Year's Eve in what is cheerfully called in the press notes "Downtown Tehren."

The child (Aida Mohammadkhan) has an agreeable pugnaciousness to her and some true grit. But her adventures are so haphazard, and the dramatic arc of the film so completely meaningless, that the movie soon ceases to grip at all and becomes an ordeal.

It's unpleasant, too: The girl is at one point humiliated by a couple of snake charmers who try to swindle her out of some money, and a passel of men watch indolently, unconcerned with her difficulty and the tough situation the child finds herself in. Why didn't someone say something? Where did they think they were, New York?

Nothing in the film is shaped dramatically, and poor Aida's sing-song, whiny voice grows extremely tiring. The movie's absurdly inflated reputation and its critical reception to me suggest a condescending oversentimentalization of a Third World product by relativists reluctant to face a truth.

And that truth is: "The White Balloon" isn't as good as "Happy Gilmore." It's not as good as "Judge Dredd" or "Assassins." It's not as good as "Baywatch" or "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno." It's not even as good, God help its humble little soul, as "Little Indian, Big City." It's little movie, dreary city.

Stephen Hunter

'Race the Sun'

*; PG

How can anyone make a race across a dramatic landscape so boring?

That's what one wonders after watching "Race the Sun," an excruciatingly dull film about a bunch of Hawaiian high school losers who challenge a prep school and themselves by building and racing a solar-powered car. Even when they end up zooming across the perilous desert in Australia, the movie is not unlike a baseball game, as commonly described: five minutes of excitement packed into two hours. (Actually, it's 105 minutes, but it feels like at least two hours.)

Halle Berry plays the teacher who thinks the kids can learn, but all she can be is chipper and cute. Her character doesn't even do the usual inspire-the-kids bit; the kids end up talking her into helping them with the project. Equally unconvincing is a tired-looking Jim Belushi, who gives the film its few tiny specks (get out the microscope) of dry humor.

The actors aren't entirely to blame. The script, by Barry Morrow, is limp and inane at best. Morrow won an Oscar for co-writing "Rain Man"; maybe he wrote the parts they cut out. Here, character development of the kids amounts to a few droplets of cartoonish family tension, and Berry and Belushi are given sketchy and absurd life stories to share around the campfire. Tell us again, Jim, about the guy who saved your life when you were in the service? Where the heck did that come from?

The science isn't explained in an engaging or even an adequate way. The Hawaiian and Australian settings are wasted. Charles T. Kanganis' clunky direction (previous credit: "3 Ninjas Kick Back") fails to elicit more than 30 seconds of suspense.

The uplifting ending is the one really good moment, but we all know it's coming. It's not worth the wait. PG (mild profanity, adolescent angst)

Pub Date: 3/22/96

Chris Kridler

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