Danger lurks beneath big smile of 'Minus Man'; Films in brief


Like "Mumford," the Lawrence Kasdan comedy that opens today, "The Minus Man" has to do with a charismatic stranger who arrives out of nowhere in a small, attractive town, and whose presence proceeds to unsettle the lives of its inhabitants. Actually, "unsettle" is a euphemism for more sinister forces that lurk underneath the drifter's sunny, accommodating persona.

Luckily, "The Minus Man," based on the novel by Lew McCreary, stars Owen Wilson, whose golden good looks, toothily ingratiating smile and beguilingly imperfect nose make him a sympathetic character no matter how menacing he becomes.

Written and directed by Hampton Fancher -- best known for his screenplay for "Blade Runner" -- "The Minus Man" isn't a thriller, exactly, although it has its share of suspense. Nor is it a nihilist comedy, although Wilson infuses his character, Vann Siegert, with an offbeat, goofy appeal.

Rather it is a post-modern Gothic portrait of evil not just as banal, but as downright nice. To his credit, Fancher never sacrifices human feeling on the altar of Vann's likability. As the emotionally torn couple from whom Vann rents a room, Brian Cox and Mercedes Ruehl threaten to bring the walls of their pretty home down as they fight to survive the unexplained loss of their daughter.

Janeane Garofalo holds her own as a local who tries to get close to Vann, only to find him increasingly unfathomable. "Minus Man" has nothing new to say about the banality of evil, but its mood of ennui and dread will haunt long after its title character's beaming grin has faded.

* * 1/2

'Jakob the Liar'

"Jakob the Liar" will inevitably be compared to "Life is Beautiful," another World War II drama that used elements of comedy to convey its most heartfelt tragedy. And, like that movie, "Jakob" stars a supremely gifted physical comedian, in this case Robin Williams.

But you won't see one of Williams' more hyperkinetic performances. Here he is subdued to the point of invisibility as a shopkeeper living in a Polish Jewish ghetto, who overhears a news report about Russian troops advancing on Poland and inadvertently becomes a beacon of hope in his beleaguered community.

Williams's restraint is echoed by such talented co-stars as Alan Arkin, Bob Balaban and Liev Schreiber. In fact, they all may be too restrained in a story that is related by filmmaker Peter Kassowitz with dignity and class but not much energy. Kassowitz said somewhere that this movie, based on a book by Jurek Becker, probably should have been made in Yiddish. He might be right: As earnest as the performances are, something seems to be lost in the translation. Still, it's a good example of the millions of stories waiting to be told about the most incomprehensible moment in history.

* * 1/2

'Dog Park'


"Dog Park" has the outward appearance of a by-the-book romantic comedy. But peel away the layers of contrivances and the left- over plot barely fills a doggy bag.

From the start, the ensemble orbits around Andy (Luke Wilson), who mopes about after his girlfriend left him -- and took the dog. The four women in his life are his ex, Cheryl (Kathleen Robertson), his best friend Jeri (Janeane Garofalo), a sexually aggressive nutritionist (Kristin Lehman), and the oh-so-lovely Lorna (Natasha Henstridge).

The idea is that these characters' dogs reflect what is happening in their owners' lives. The reality is that the people are hardly more complex than their four-legged friends. Defined solely by their dating lives -- wary, intrusive, too-quick-to-commit -- the characters are so uninteresting, it's difficult to believe they're interested in each other.

The owners' world gets smaller and smaller until there are zero degrees of separation between any of the characters. The connections are supposed to be clever, but the result is baffling. How can this handful of people move in a circle so small, yet never realize how they're linked?

* *

Pub Date: 9/24/99

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