A Classic LETDOWN 'Great Expectations' looked good on paper. But on film, it will leave viewers wondering what in the Dickens is going on.

January 30, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

When it comes to movies, April isn't the cruelest month, January is.

It's not enough that movie audiences have been forced to endure such poor-to-mediocre fare as "Firestorm," "Hard Rain," "Fallen" and "Phantoms" during the film industry's favorite month to dump bad product. Now comes "Great Expectations," an adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic that has all the emotional ballast of a Victoria's Secret catalog and all the intellectual depth of an MTV video.

This may be going out on a limb, but it's doubtful that even the most rabid young fans of Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow, who star, will find anything of interest in "Great Expectations," aside from the opportunity to consider Miss Paltrow's chiseled jaw line and perfect clavicles from every conceivable angle.

Director Alfonso Cuaron ("A Little Princess") sets his contemporized version of Dickens' 19th-century tale in modern-day Florida, where Finn Bell (played as a child by Jeremy James Kissner) lives with his neglectful sister and her kind boyfriend on the Gulf Coast.

As per the original, Finn is one day accosted by a terrifying escaped convict who demands food and the means to escape his shackles. In this case it's Robert De Niro, reprising his role from "Cape Fear," who rises up from the Gulf waters during one of Finn's daily sketching sessions. Finn dutifully helps the convicted murderer, and the brief encounter will change his life forever.

But not as much as another encounter, which follows forthwith: At the estate of the dotty Ms. Dinsmoor (otherwise known as Miss Havisham, played by Anne Bancroft in a pastiche of "Laugh-In" and "Sunset Boulevard"), Finn meets the beautiful Estella, who even at a tender age has been schooled in the wiles of teasing and tormenting besotted young men.

"Great Expectations" follows Finn's progress from the Gulf Coast to New York, where Hawke and Paltrow sashay prettily through a story that, remarkably, is as preposterous as it is monotonous. Will Finn win over New York ("It's the center of the art world," Estella sniffs)? Learn the meaning of life? Get the girl? Next question.

There are moments, in Florida, when "Great Expectations" reveals the same gifts of atmosphere and visual acuity that Cuaron exhibited in "A Little Princess," and Anne Bancroft does dementia with delightful elan, but once Finn is sent to New York by his anonymous benefactor and the film's of-the-moment soundtrack kicks in, "Great Expectations" becomes little more than a pose-a-thon between the two leads: Paltrow undresses at every opportunity, smoking photogenically; Hawke turns on the earnest charm.

All of this is to no avail. Finn is just an ungrateful Gen-Xer, who takes everything he is mysteriously given (Here's a Tribeca loft! Here's a show at a gallery! Here's a profile in New York magazine! Here's a little walking-around money!) with a snotty sense of entitlement.

It shouldn't be a surprise that "the art world," of which New York is the center, is portrayed in a series of burlesque vignettes featuring scary girls dressed in black, dropping names like de Kooning and Haring and Sotheby's with bored hauteur.

Then again, the setting is just cartoonish enough to make a fitting backdrop for these two callow lead characters.

Some advice to anyone foolhardy enough to brave "Great Expectations": If you have any, lower them.

'Great Expectations'

Starring Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anne Bancroft

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

Released by 20th Century Fox

Rated R (language and some sexuality)

Sun Score: * 1/2

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