John Malkovich's directorial debut, The Dancer Upstairs, stars Javier Bardem, the Oscar-nominated actor from Before Night Falls, as a juicy, crisis-laden character: Agustin Rejas, an idealistic South American cop trying to stop a messianic Marxist called Ezequiel from terrorizing a state each knows to be corrupt.
The movie fails at the primary steps of turning Rejas' mind inside out and dramatizing the contradictions in his heart and soul.
Adapting his 1995 novel of the same name, based on the search for the man who led Peru's notorious Shining Path guerrillas, Nicholas Shakespeare jettisons his story-within-a-story structure for a clipped, straight-ahead approach. In the process, he and Malkovich skimp on the texture and tenets of mainstream society and rebel movement alike, leaving Bardem's dogged detective in the lurch. Most of the time Rejas just looks empty or monotonously soulful.
Malkovich's direction seems meditative. But what is he meditating on? This director presents the awfulness of political violence, often enacted or abetted by children, without placing it in a compelling context. The book drew a definitive portrait of a terrorist guru as a renegade intellectual getting off on, and exploiting, the grass-roots fervor of his followers. But Malkovich merely suggests Ezequiel's poseur quality while savagely depicting the unnamed country's middle class as a parody of American pop culture. (Rejas' status-conscious wife reports on The Bridges of Madison County to her book club.)
The movie gives more reasons for overthrowing society than for protecting it. The military tore up Rejas' own roots when it appropriated his father's coffee farm; the government has never won support from rural and/or Indian citizens.
Of course, the grotesquerie of the terrorists - they even use hanged dogs as a calling card - establishes them as the greater of two evils. And the policeman's position as a "man between," striving to clamp down on inhuman extremists without succumbing to state-sanctioned overkill, links The Dancer Upstairs to the ambiguous moral universe of classic movie thrillers by director Carol Reed (The Third Man, The Man Between). But Malkovich takes an unbecoming and complacent pride in this position. He acknowledges Costa-Gavras' State of Siege (1973) as a reference point, yet that film both spelled out a South American revolutionary rationale and debated every possible response to it. The Dancer Upstairs does neither.
Even Malkovich's staging of an assassination in an avant-garde theater pales before a similar scene in Brian De Palma's Hi, Mom (1970). As for the title: Laura Morante plays the dance teacher of Rejas' daughter. She's more of a romantic and aesthetic concept than a woman, and neither Rejas' crush on her nor her own fate carries any resonance.
The Dancer Upstairs tiptoes around its emotional and political content. Despite its aura of ambitiousness, this movie simply conjures a thoughtful, melancholy mood.
The Dancer Up stairs
Starring Javier Bardem
Directed by John Malkovich
Released by Fox Searchlight
Time 129 minutes
Sun Score **