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Batman Forever

By Richard von Busack

Joel Schumacher has always been a cowardly director. In most of his movies-Flatliners, The Lost Boys, Falling Down -he backs off from the material by the last reel, assuaging viewers who might have been disturbed by the story.

He does it again in Batman Forever . There's none of this weird, mythical Tim Burton dark stuff-Val Kilmer's Bruce Wayne has about as much of a grim side as the proverbial little guy on the wedding cake. Schumacher has been quoted as saying, "They're comic books, not tragic books," and he has dutifully brought home the gaudy, dumbed-down spectacle the money men wanted all along, although when something is so driven by stars and effects, it's more like ringmastering than directing.

Kilmer, probably best described as a less nuanced actor than Adam West, is yet supposed to be tormented by his compulsion to dress like a bat. His love interest, Nicole Kidman, arguably the most inept shrink in the history of the movies, is confused over whether she loves Batman or Wayne. There's an old-fashioned lack of chemistry between the two (or three), possibly due to the fact that no one knows if Kidman's character is supposed to be a fine psychiatrist or a bimbo.

That takes care of the romance, so the franchise is free to deal with the other front-loaded stars: Tommy Lee Jones, a roaring gangster named Two-Face, whose best gag is using the royal "we," and Jim Carrey as Edward "E." Nygma, later the Riddler, a mad inventor, whose device to beam television straight into people's brains has fried his own.

Just as Kilmer's straight-faced delivery is meant to recall West's deadpan from the television series, Carrey is a more hyped-up Frank Gorshin. Gorshin's Richard Widmark falsetto giggle was a terrifying sound to a kid; Carrey's version is probably the most gratifying part of the movie.

The Boy Wonder is a born hostage: you wonder why they bother about the kid at all. Long-in-the-tooth, thick-necked ex-boy Chris O'Donnell, in a dismaying metal codpiece, fights it out with an equal dismaying script. At one point, he tries to explain what a butch biker type like himself is doing hiding under the swishy nom de guerre  Robin.

Supposedly sulking in midvendetta (his family having been wiped out by killers), Robin hotwires the Batmobile for a joyride while the Damned play "Smash It Up" on the soundtrack. Schumacher keeps chasing the mood out with a stick.

The solitude, the somberness, the elegance of the Batman of the two Burton-directed installments in the series-and of the superb animated television show, which is usually smarter and more thrilling than Batman Forever -have been replaced by flash powder and neon.

The filmmakers display little taste for the complexity of the greatest of pulp vigilantes and yet couldn't dispense with that complexity all together. The scenes of Batman's sorrow-what was formerly suggested with a silence, with a look, with a swirl of Danny Elfman's music-is now spread over pages of stiff dialogue. It's clutter.

The villains' interruptions are a relief, just as they were an annoyance in the first two movies. Batman Forever  is a lavish, good-looking picture that's mostly too flashy to be boring. But it is empty, and I think that even the preview audience felt the hollowness. The Batman movie series is a two-face now, too: one face the work of an artist like Tim Burton, the other side, the visage of a hack like Joel Schumacher.

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