Goodbye, Mr. Gibson

When an actor known for his looks Wants to be taken seriously, the quickest remedy is disguise. Given the opportunity to direct his first film, Mel Gibson has gone out of his way to shed his hearty-hunk image. The Man Without a Face is a small, sensitive film about a fatherless 12-year-old (Nick Stahl) who develops a close, nurturing relationship with his tutor. Gibson plays the teacher, who in addition to being solitary and erudite is so severely disfigured that the suspicious locals call him "Hamburgerhead."

The setting is a Maine coastal town; the time, 1968. The boy, Chuck, comes from a broken, bickering family. His two half sisters (nicely played by Fay Masterson and Gaby Hoffman) each have different fathers, and Chuck grows up with a bruising sense of inferiority and a fear that he might be crazy. Desperate to leave home and get into a military academy, he learns that the brusque, mysterious Mr. McLeod was once a teacher, and secretly asks for his academic help. Their mutual education begins--Chuck opening his mind to geometry and Shakespeare (much playacting of "The Merchant of Venice"), McLeod overcoming his self-imposed solitude--but as the audience suspects, the gossipy townsfolk will bring this idyll to an end. The rumor starts that McLeod is a child molester, and Chuck is forbidden to see him again.

"The Man Without a Face" is such a noble, well-intentioned little film--a cross between "Dead Poets Society" and "The Phantom of the Opera!' done as an after-school special--that one feels like an ogre picking on it. Alternately poky and melodramatic--and occasionally witty and insightful--Malcolm MacRury's uneven screenplay too often strains credibility. Perhaps the biggest problem comes with the character of Chuck's mom (Margaret Whitton), who suddenly seems to know all about McLeod's past when previously she knew nothing about him. When the deck is this stacked, the audience feels patronized. It doesn't help that Gibson plays McLeod as such a stoically heroic tragic figure, a man who sits alone in his imposing seacoast house listening to Puccini arias and quoting Latin poets. He's the kind of guy one meets only in the movies. The film would have been a lot more challenging if it had been faithful to its source, Isabelle Holland's young-adult novel, in which McLeod was also homosexual. Gibson elects to play it safe.

As a director, Gibson's strongest suit is his work with the actors--particularly his young star Stahl, a natural who possesses great emotional range. If the whole project had Stahl's honesty, it might have been the little gem it so earnestly means to be.

Fred Waitzkin (Joe Mantegna), the father of 7-year-old chess prodigy Josh (Max Pomeranc), regards his son's uncanny gift with a mixture of awe, envy and pride. "He's better at this than I've ever been at anything in my life." How does one nurture a talent this rare? Whose ambitions--the father's or the son's--are being served? And how can a boy become a budding grandmaster in the ruthlessly cerebral world of chess and retain his humanity?

These are a few of the juicy questions addressed in Searching for Bobby Fischer, Steven Zaillian's stirring, semifictionalized adaptation of Fred Waitzkin's book about his son. The question that writer/director Zaillian had to solve was how to make a movie about an arcane, internalized game that would speak to an audience who wouldn't know a Karpov from a Kasparov. In his least imaginative moments, he simply turns up the pushy score, piles on the relentless close-ups, makes josh a pint-size Rocky and turns his demanding chess teacher Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley) into a shabby, genteel version of Obi-Wan Kenobi. These are forgivable ploys, however, for the story he is telling--about parenting, teachers and students, and the nature of competition--is a rich one, and Zaillian tells it with warmth, humor and zest. The cast is first-rate. Laurence Fishburne plays the rather underdeveloped role of Vinnie, Josh's other teacher, a speed-chess hustler with a more instinctive approach to the game than Pandolfini. Joan Allen is Josh's protective mother, determined to see that his childhood isn't stolen by the monastic demands of the game. Best of all is young Pomeranc, a chess whiz with no previous acting experience. In his watchful, soulful eyes are united both the sage master strategist closing in for the kill and the sweet 7-year-old who just wants to have fun.

In his new comedy thriller Manhattan Murder Mystery, cowritten by Marshall Brickman, Woody Allen plays his most frazzled variation on the Woody we know best: a nervous-Nellie urban neurotic kvetching his way through life as a means of avoiding it. As the book editor Larry Lipton, a man terrified of the impulsive, he has the bad (but really very good) luck of having Diane Keaton as his wife, Carol, a woman constantly scratching the itch of her intuition. And her instincts tell her that the sweet old woman down the hall did not die of a heart attack but was murdered by her husband Jerry Adler), the man who nearly bored Larry to death showing off his stamp collection.

Everything about "Manhattan Murder Mystery" (except his recent fondness for the handheld camera) harks back to the earlier, more playful Allen style. Imagine a middle-aged Annie Hall stumbling into a film noir. At first, the whiny badinage seems too familiar--or maybe it's just that nowadays it takes a little time to cast the real Woody out of mind and let the screen persona take over. But the good news is that once the gears of the plot kick in, Allen's expert comic timing proves as beguiling as ever. One scene involving a tape recording designed to trap the killer is as flat-out funny as anything he's ever done.

The murder mystery itself can't be taken too seriously-it's just Allen's fanciful pretext for making another movie about relationships. Alan Alda is on hand to provide extramarital temptation as Keaton's slick pal Ted, who's much more willing to encourage her Nancy Drew fantasies than worrywart Woody. And Anjelica Huston, as an aggressive novelist, would be happy to lead her reluctant editor astray. As it turns out, a little brush with murder and mayhem is just the tonic the Liptons' marriage needs. On screen, Keaton and Allen have always been made for each other: they still strike wonderfully ditsy sparks. After the edgy intensities of "Husbands and Wives," this is a stroll in the park. It doesn't break new ground but, like a singer's (Alvy Singer's?) album of golden oldies, reminds us of the tunes we used to love to hear him play. That's nothing to sneeze at.