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01.28.09

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Phaedra

Photograph by Murray Close
A HARD ROGUE: Paul Bettany's Dustfinger keeps company with a pet ferret in 'Inkheart.'

From the Pages

Characters from books come to life with dire results for Brendan Fraser in 'Inkheart.'

By Richard von Busack


Even Brendan Fraser's good humor seems to be wearing out in Inkheart. Fraser has the kind of physicality that made Douglas Fairbanks Sr. a star, and he is a seriously gifted physical comedian. The success of three popular but terrible Mummy movies is partially due to Fraser being the only living thing in a CGI landscape. And his underperforming films need a new look. In Clark Collis' Entertainment Weekly profile of Fraser this week, the headline asked, "How long does he have to apologize for Monkeybone?"

Collis probably didn't write the headline, but if anyone has to apologize for Monkeybone, it's producer Chris Columbus, who compromised it, or the studio execs who mangled it. (Director Henry Selick's commentary track on the DVD of Monkeybone is enlightening; deleted scenes explain what Selick was up to before the execs got cold feet.) What do you expect? Traditional entertainment journalism claims that the hits are important films because they're hits, and the box-office failures are unimportant because nobody saw them. In brief, this is not how cinema history works, or else Michael Bay would be more important than Orson Welles.

In Inkheart, Fraser does his thing, looking alert, hitting his marks and climbing a tile rooftop. But Inkheart has little heart; it squanders Fraser and a fine group of character actors in a very promising fantasy plot. Fraser plays Mo, an expatriate bookbinder living in Italy. He is a "silvertongue," with the ability to call fictional characters out of a book by reading aloud. Unfortunately, this gift is a curse: some human in our world must take the place of the materialized fictional character. When Mo once read a children's book called Inkheart to his child, his wife (Sienna Guillory) vanished into the book, and he and his daughter were left behind. Unfortunately, the book's villain, Capricorn (Andy Sirkis, Gollum from Lord of the Rings), has escaped and is setting up a cryptofascist assault on our world. Mo's most reliable help is the scarred rogue character from the book Inkheart, Ashfinger (Paul Bettany).

The steep locations in the Italian alps are a plus, and Jennifer Connelly appears in a couple of highly decorative scenes, made up as a Renaissance princess. In a milieu that could have used some poetry, director Iain Softley tenderizes the material with bumbling silly henchmen and a crazy aunty character (Helen Mirren, wasted). The scenes bustle like a Christmas pantomime, with wasted motion all over the place. Playing the snippy author of the book Inkheart, Jim Broadbent is apparently not moved by the fact that his obscure and out-of-print book has found devotees.

This material has been approached before in Woody Allen's famous short story "The Kugelmass Episode," about a professor who was convinced he could make Emma Bovary happy. Inkheart flashes some of the famed characters of fiction, such as the winged monkeys of The Wizard of Oz and Toto, too, but they're just witnesses to the mayhem; they don't have any effect on the recycled plot. But the most depressing thing about Inkheart is watching the look on Fraser's face when you're supposed to be watching the unicorn. The strain of these technical movies is beginning to show on him. I'm hoping he can get out of this green-screen routine: I think there's an Errol Flynn or a Burt Lancaster in him. I think he could be a bastard and make the audience like it.


Movie Times INKHEART (PG; 106 min.), directed by Ian Softley, written by David Lindsay-Abaire, based on the novel by Cornelia Funke, photographed by Roger Pratt and starring Brendan Fraser, plays countywide.


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