** 1/2 Stars
(US 2000)

George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Diane Lane, John C. Reilly

Directed by Wolfgang Petersen

Writing Credits: Sebastian Junger (book), William D. Wittliff

Warner Bros * 129 minutes

Screened at: Loew's Ramsey Interstate



Over the first Independence Day weekend of 2000, the mantle of Hot Box Office Star was officially passed from Mel Gibson over to George Clooney, with the trouncing of the earnest endurance test THE PATRIOT by the Clooney vehicle, an adaptation of Sebastian Junger's best-selling book, THE PERFECT STORM.

I have some concerns about the ethics of packaging the reenactment of the recent deaths of eight people for the purpose of creating a popcorn-style summer entertainment, when the families of said people still have fresh memories of the event. However, if one must do so, it's incumbent upon the screenwriter and director to make these people live again in the personae of the actors who portray them. Wolfgang Petersen's THE PERFECT STORM is the kind of effects-driven rollercoaster ride moviegoers expect during the summer, but it falls short of paying its protagonists the respect to which it aspires.

It is October 1991. Captain Billy Tyne (George Clooney) of the swordfish boat Andrea Gail has been coming up short over the last few trips. The owner of the boat (Michael Ironside) is doubting his ability to produce. "If you can't, I'll find someone who can," he says. In an attempt to salvage both his career as a Gloucester fisherman and his pride, Tyne plans to take the boat out again, only this time going all the way out to the Grand Banks in search of the kind of monster haul the boat's owner demands. He gathers up his crew: Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg), a struggling rookie hoping for a future with his girlfriend Christina Cotter (Diane Lane); Murphy, a divorced father of a young son all too aware of the ways in which he's failed in his life; David "Sully" Sullivan (William Fichtner), a hot-tempered man always picking a fight, Caribbean immigrant Alfred Pierre, (Allen Payne of A PRICE ABOVE RUBIES); and Mike "Bugsy" Moran (John Hawkes), a sweet-natured, if dim man who wants only to meet Miss Right Now, if not Miss Right. These are men living lives of quiet desperation, whose days consist of working the fishing boats and whose nights consist of drinking beer at the Crow's Nest bar while listening to Bruce Springsteen and for some strange reason, Bob Marley— and getting laid, if they're lucky. Together, they head out to the Grand Banks and beyond to the Flemish Cap, unaware that a weather event of unprecedented proportions — the collision of a Category 5 hurricane, Grace; a low-pressure system hovering over the banks, and a cold front whooshing down from the north — is about to take place.

What follows is a classic tale of man's hubris in the face of nature, as well as an attempt at paying loving tribute to the men who truly love their life on the sea. When these men (and women, as Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio appears as a rival boat captain) start fishing, we can actually feel the joy and pride they take in their work, and under a sunny autumn sky, we see the romance of the sea life. So where's the problem? The fault lies in William Witliff's lugubrious script, which forces the protagonists (I hate to call the dramatization of real people "characters") to utter some of the most pretentious, ludicrously melodramatic lines ever put into an adventure film. THE PERFECT STORM seems never quite comfortable in its popcorn-flick niche, and substitutes melodrama for seriousness.

To make matters worse, the narrative and editing seem choppy. A subplot borrowed from the book but which detracts from the story of the men of the Andrea Gail involves another boat whose owner (Bob Gunton, forever the evil Warden Norton of THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION) and passengers (Cherry Jones and Karen Allen, two terrific actresses with nothing here to do but scream "Mayday! Mayday!" into a microphone) are rescued by the Coast Guard. It's a ripsnorting rollercoaster ride, but serves merely as a distraction. Meanwhile, back on the Andrea Gail, a night of fearsome waves that appears to be an omen of the approaching storm is then followed by a sunshiny day of calm seas. Either something went wrong with the editing, I don't understand how storms work, or the director was in such a hurry to get to the hurricane, he didn't care.

Petersen has assembled a stable of fine actors, led by the surprising George Clooney. Clooney is the first 1930's movie star of the millennium; a "man's man" who for some unfathomable reason makes women swoon despite a nearly complete opacity to his screen persona. A throwback to the great studio stars of the golden age, Clooney can resemble, depending on the scene, a handsomer Humphrey Bogart, a rough-around-the-edges Gregory Peck, or Clark Gable with smaller ears. (Indeed, a recent VANITY FAIR shoot of Clooney done up as Gable is nothing short of astonishing.) A shade too handsome for Tyne's blue-collar Gloucesterman, and with a Southern California drawl to boot, he is despite all this, a seaman right out of a Hemingway novel, with the tenacity of Melville's Captain Ahab.

If Clooney is Clark Gable, then co-star Mark Wahlberg is James Cagney. With his pug-Irish face and rough mannerisms, Wahlberg continues to astonish, portraying characters more innocent — and more complex— than his rap-and-modeling resume would make you expect. Once again, as in last year's THREE KINGS, Wahlberg is an effective Robin to Clooney's Batman as Bobby Shatford. Where Wahlberg falls short is in his complete lack of chemistry with Diane Lane, who plays Stratford's girlfriend Christina. For all his sixpack abs and terrific hair, Wahlberg too is a "man's man" who has yet to demonstrate that he can be a convincing romantic lead. Lane, who left scorch marks on the screen opposite Nordic ice-god Viggo Mortensen in 1999's A WALK ON THE MOON, is a phenomenal actress, who can portray a world of emotion without saying a word. Here, attempting a Boston accent that seems like warmed over Noo Yawk left over from her jaunt to the Catskills last year and looking pinched, worried, and just a bit haggard, she actually looks too old to play opposite Wahlberg. In a moment of "what could have been," the film contains a wonderful blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment in which Clooney flashes her a smile and she flashes one back. It's a "just friends" moment, but it's so electric that when it happens, you think, "THIS is the screen pairing I want to see."

Comparisons of THE PERFECT STORM to that other shipwreck movie, 1997's TITANIC, are inevitable. Industrial Light and Magic exponentializes the CGI water effects that TITANIC pioneered, creating some huge waves that reasonably approximate a storm-tossed sea. More spectacular, however, is a wonderful aerial shot of the huge Hurricane Grace, as the camera literally plunges through the eye of the storm and into the sea. And yet, the computer-generated water still doesn't seem quite real. The level of special effects changes so quickly that what seemed amazing in 1997 has a "been there, done that" quality. That James Horner was selected to compose the score doesn't help. While Horner rips off his own riffs and progressions somewhat less here than he did in TITANIC's score, he liberally uses his melodramatic sledgehammer. We can only be thankful that there's no Celine Dion love song.

Oh, there's some suspense here, in the rescue of the pleasure boat travelers, and in the brief moments when it appears that perhaps the men just might be able to turn around and go back out to sea to wait the storm out. There are even a few poignant moments, as the families, friends, and an old salt named Quentin who comes across like a live action version of the sea captain on THE SIMPSONS sit around the Crow's Nest Bar waiting for news.But while that OTHER boat movie made you suspend enough disbelief to actually hope that a ship you knew sank doesn't, this one never immerses you in these people enough for you to carry that hope. Indeed, it broadcasts its crew's doom from the opening scene, which portrays a safe return of the same doomed men.

Perhaps the biggest disservice paid to the men who died on the Andrea Gail, however, is in their portrayal at the end as sitting ducks, waiting for their inevitable deaths, even after fighting valiantly to get their catch back to port. There are no Jack Dawsons here, exhorting anyone to fight on; no inspiring stories of brave survivors who go on to live full lives, just exhausted men who realize that the weather they've tempted has finally vanquished them, and those who loved them, trying to go on with their shattered lives.

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Review text copyright © 1999 Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti is prohibited.

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