There have been bigger Christmases at the nation's movie houses, and there have been better Christmases. But never has there been a Christmas season that's both small and undistinguished. Hooray for Hollywood.
It's thin on spectacle, on drama and on . . . movies. Only 10 big films, by my count; I can remember a December when seven films opened on a single Friday alone.
One of the few big action films opens next Friday, with Wesley Snipes as a U.S. marshal on the trail of terrorists who have stolen top secret computer codes. The film is "Drop Zone," and somewhat like Charlie Sheen's "Maximum Velocity," much of the action turns on people jumping out of airplanes, sometimes with parachutes.
That day also brings Nora Ephron's black holiday comedy, called by the generic title "Mixed Nuts"; it was adapted from a French farce with a more pungent moniker. Steve Martin plays the somewhat overmatched administrator of a suicide hot line that goes ballistic come the holiday season. Finally, there's the sure box-office hit "Disclosure," starring Michael Douglas as an innocent Joe and Demi Moore as the workplace predator who orders him to have sex with her. Derived from the Michael Crichton novel, this production was directed by Baltimore's own Barry Levinson.
On Dec. 16, "Speechless" arrives with the best buzz of the month. It stars Michael Keaton and Geena Davis as ideologically opposed lovers in today's Washington, though the previews play down the political background and make no mention of the possible analogs in real life, Mary Matalin and James Carville.
Then there's "Dumb and Dumber," which Jim Carrey dominates with his usual brand of lunacy undercut by craziness. He's paired with Jeff Daniels, a very good actor who's never quite made it up to the star level, and the two of them wander through anarchistic scenarios, deconstructing the world. The film should be a big hit, and possibly that will do Daniels some good; on the other hand, he did "Speed," a big hit, and that didn't do him much good.
On Dec. 21, "Richie Rich," the old '50s comic book about the world's richest teen-ager, reaches the screen. Ironically, its star is the authentic world's richest teen-ager, Macaulay Culkin. But if it's not a hit, Culkin better watch out; Elijah Wood is closing fast.
On Dec. 23, Jodie Foster comes to the screen in what will almost certainly be another Oscar-nominated role: In "Nell," she is a "feral woman" raised in the wilderness of Tennessee by a speechless mother; she eventually comes under the stewardship competing doctors, played by Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson.
That same day, that hot, happenin', now author, Louisa May Alcott, gets the big-screen treatment as "Little Women," with Winona Ryder, arrives. Others in the cast are Susan Sarandon and Gabriel Byrne. From the other side of the cultural spectrum, the video-game world, comes "Streetfighter," with Jean-Claude Van Damme kicking tail and saving the world as some kind of U.N. Blue Beret; alas, his foil in this one is the last performance by the late, distinguished, theatrical actor Raul Julia; one hopes that Julia is remembered for "Kiss of the Spider Woman" over "Streetfighter."
There's also a snippy, ironic costume drama, "Restoration," with Meg Ryan and Robert Downey Jr. And the Algonquin circle, whose ghosts still haunt most American newsrooms, gets a skewering in "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle," with Jennifer Jason Leigh playing a lockjawed, deeply self-destructive Dorothy Parker. Last, on that day the Charles opens its rapturously reviewed Christmas film, Louis Malle's "Vanya on 42nd Street," about Andre Gregory's seat-of-the-pants production of Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" at a 42nd Street art house.
On Christmas day, a live-action Disney version of the previously animated "The Jungle Book" appears, though it's formally called "Rudyard Kipling's 'The Jungle Book,' " to emphasize the lineage to the imperialist-genius writer who spun the original tale. Cary Elwes and Sam Neill are in it, but the star, playing Mowgli the Jungle Boy, is Jason Scott Lee, who was so good as Bruce Lee in the biography.
In "I.Q.," Albert Einstein (Walter Matthau) tries to play matchmaker between his niece (Meg Ryan) and an auto mechanic (Tim Robbins).
Then there's Robert Altman's examination of the fashion industry, actually filmed on the runways of Paris: "Ready To Wear (Pret-a-Porter)." A la Altman, it has a stellar though eccentric cast, a huge rambling plot and probably lots of women in their underwear. Among the players: Lauren Bacall, Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, Tim Robbins, Kim Basinger and Tracey Ullman.
A few of the bigger hitters will open in New York and L.A. in December, but not in provincial cities -- this, to assure entry into the 1994 Oscar race. These include Tommy Lee Jones in Ron Shelton's "Cobb"; the Anthony Hopkins-Brad Pitt film, "Legends
of the Fall"; and "Safe Passage," with Susan Sarandon and Sam Shepherd, about a dysfunctional family.
Then there's Paul Newman starring in "Nobody's Fool," in which he plays a crusty construction worker who has pretty much blown off every relationship he ever had; the movie, set in a small upstate New York town, watches as he tries grudgingly to get them back. Melanie Griffith and Bruce Willis also appear.
And finally, Gary Oldman, recently observed murdering whole families in "The Professional," arrives as . . . Beethoven in "Immortal Beloved."