Arnold Proves He's Bigger Than Ever

Arnold gets pregnant. There it is, the height of high concept, a gimmick so sure-fire--make that Mrs. Surefire that no matter how hilarious or horrible Junior turned out to be, anything less than a $25 million opening weekend would be a scandal. Add Midas-touch director Ivan Reitman ("Ghostbusters....... Twins") to the package, cover your bets with reliable second fiddle Danny DeVito, soften up the critics with tony Emma Thompson as the romantic interest and make sure you get Schwarzenegger in drag before the comedy is over, and you've got yourself a product any self-respecting Hollywood executive would kill his children to produce.

The nice thing is, "Junior" isn't exactly the movie you'd imagine it to be. It's broad, but not that broad. it has pratfalls, but farce is not the tone Reitman's after. Since "Dave." he's become a more discreet, understated director, and the best scenes here don't go for knee-slapping responses. There's the pregnant Arnold pigging out with DeVito's pregnant ex-wife Pamela Reed at the dinner table, overcome by strange food cravings, or the funny/lovely moment when Arnold becomes teary-eyed watching a sappy Kodak commercial.

The script, by Kevin Wade and Chris Conrad, takes its time setting up the joke. Arnold's a grim, cold-fish scientist working with DeVito on a new miracle drug to guarantee healthy pregnancies. When the FDA and the university pull the plug on the project, Arnold secretly tries it out on himself, using a frozen egg from scientist Emma Thompson's lab. These first 40 minutes don't bode well. Thompson's character, the brainy klutz, seems a tired stereotype. The villain of the piece, Frank Langella's spiteful research administrator, is utterly perfunctory. The graphic pseudo-science of the impregnation-injecting Arnold's muscle-bound abdomen is more a turnoff than a riot.

But the wait pays off. When the Big Guy starts showing, and begins to get that radiant glow, "Junior" hits its mellow, endearing comic stride. The "message" is the old "Tootsie" roll: Arnold becomes a better, more sensitive man by experiencing life as a woman. Some people (not men, I'd bet) may be offended: is there nothing those guys won't co-opt? But the fantasy's intentions seem benign. Who ever imagined they'd see the former Mr. Universe, his belly extended, shouting "My body, my choice!"? This is Schwarzenegger's most adroit comic turn: relieved of his macho duties, he seems looser and subtler. Thompson, an agile physical clown, plays off him deftly. They make odd romantic sense. Neither hilarious nor horrible, "Junior" is the first would-be Arnold blockbuster that coasts on charm.