Not A Season To Be Jolly

There have been a lot of good movies in 1992, but precious few came from the big Hollywood studios, which have had a creatively dismal year. Wait until Christmas, everybody said, when the majors trot out their class acts. The crowds will roar, the Academy will festoon these giants with laurels.

For the bottom-line boys, the season has gotten off to a merry start: "Aladdin" "Home Alone 2," "A Few Good Men" and "The Bodyguard" have been raking in major dollars. The cheering, however, may be about to fade. For the majority of Hollywood's year-end "prestige" movies are likely to satisfy neither moviegoers, critics nor the folks who give out Oscars. A sadly disappointing lot, they make you wonder about the judgment of the experts who green-light huge budgets for films that seem to be made with no one in mind. They're not art and they're not good entertainment-they're deals gone wrong.

Let's start with the good news, the only one of six new studio releases that warrants (qualified) enthusiasm, Scent of a Woman. The setup is simple: over Thanksgiving, a young prep-school student, Charlie (Chris O'Donnell), takes a job as caretaker to bitter, bilious and blind Lt. Col. Frank Slade (Al Pacino), a heavy-drinking recluse. Slade has plans: he whisks his reluctant human guide dog to a sumptuous suite at the Waldorf in New York, dines at the Oak Room, demonstrates his tango technique and avails himself of the best call girl in Manhattan, all as a grand prelude to his intended suicide. We sense, from the outset, what will happen: that the shy, inexperienced Charlie and the worldly, self-destructive Slade will teach each other those wonderfully affirmative life lessons that odd couples in movies always seem to learn. And indeed they do.

But director Martin Brest, writer Bo Goldman and the extraordinary Pacino wrest some minor miracles from this dubiously sentimental premise. An audaciously unfancy filmmaker, Brest ("Midnight Run") gives his actors and his scenes plenty of breathing space, and Pacino responds with roaring theatrical bravado. His Slade is a volatile, fascinating mix of old-fashioned courtliness and viperish hostility. And Goldman invests him with an extravagant Southern wit that makes this one of the rare Hollywood movies that are a pleasure to listen to. Still, the two-character conceit doesn't warrant a two-and-a-half-hour running time. There's too much of Charlie's prep-school ethical crisis (he faces expulsion if he doesn't rat on some callow schoolmates who humiliated the headmaster), which comes to a phony Capra-esque conclusion designed to please the youth market. But as long as Pacino is on screen, one is hooked on Slade's every move. Forgive the movie's patness; relish its many richly lived-in moments.

If the biopic is one of the most treacherous forms to master, the Hollywood biopic about Hollywood seems specially cursed: remember "Gable and Lombard," "W. C. Fields and Me"? To this elephants' graveyard add Richard Attenborough's glumly misconceived Chaplin, which trudges its way through the great comic's long, brilliant, scandal-ridden career without ever catching fire. The pity of it is that Robert Downey Jr. has all the right stuff for the role: the physical grace, the melancholy, the Cockney-overlaid-with-culture accent. Yet his dexterous, intelligent performance is betrayed at every turn by a script (by William Boyd, Bryan Forbes and William Goldman) that crams so much in that it does nothing justice, and by Attenborough's lumbering filmmaking. "Chaplin" whisks so many famous characters on and off-screen you feel like you're attending a celebrity look-alike convention. There's Doug Fairbanks and Mack Sennett! Meet J. Edgar Hoover! Whoops, we just lost Mabel Normand. Isn't that Paulette Goddard? When the film finally shows clips from actual Chaplin movies, you wonder why all this effort wasn't expended on an in-depth documentary. It would have been much more fun to watch than this sad clown movie.

The men behind Hoffa-screenwriter David Mamet and director Danny DeVito-bend over backward to avoid many of the biopics' most egregious cliches. You want to know about Jimmy Hoffa's childhood, what made him passionate about labor organizing? Forget it. You want to know about his private life? Don't look here. You want a rousing tale of labor vs. devil bosses? Too corny for these guys. You want a muckraking expose of the Teamster head's ties to the Mafia? Well, you don't get that either in this ambivalently admiring portrait of the pugnacious Hoffa.

Just what "Hoffa" is-and whom it's meant for-is harder to say. That is both what makes it sometimes fascinating and ultimately frustrating. At heart, it's another hermetic Mamet study of tough guys wielding power and words, brutishly and self-consciously. Filled with fictional and composite characters-DeVito as Hoffa's loyal right-hand man, Armand Assante as a longstanding mobster pal-mixed in with such real-life figures as Hoffa nemesis Robert Kennedy (played as a bratty preppy dweeb by Kevin Anderson), "Hoffa" is painfully short on historical context, and it never gets far enough inside the man to make a case for him as a misunderstood tragic figure. This is one very odd epic, shot with deliberate artifice by DeVito, complete with fake sunsets and bird's-eye vantage points. The razzmatazz is striking, but it's hard to see what relevance it has to Hoffa's career. What one comes away with is Jack Nicholson, superbly made up, scheming and fuming with showy, mesmerizing skill. Big and portentous, "Hoffa" feels like a series of acting exercises inflated to epic proportions. But as a portrait of unionism's most controversial figure, it offers only flickering illumination.

The failure of Barry Levinson's Toys is of a different order: it's the kind of folly only a very fine filmmaker could make, a labor of misguided love. A project Levinson has wanted to make since before "Diner," it's a strenuously whimsical antimilitarist fable that harks back to the era of "Willy Wonka" and "Brewster McCloud." On the side of the angels is holy-fool hero Leslie Zevo (Robin Williams). He's a childlike zany trying to save his late father's toy factory from the clutches of his uncle, an evil General (Michael Gambon) who plans to convert it into a weapons plant to build deadly real war toys. In an era in which the line between video games and televised warfare has become thin, there's the germ of an interesting satirical idea here. But the notion is given no visceral impact. There's not a recognizable human being to care about, the story line is thin to the point of anorexia and much of the off-the-cuff comedy falls flat in the absurdist setting.

"Toys" does, however, offer plenty of eye candy: the great production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti ("The Last Emperor") has created a colorfully surreal cartoon world, full of tricks of perspective and expressive toy figures. The semi-subdued Williams gets off his share of verbal sparklers (surveying a warehouse of war toys, he quips: "F.A.O. Schwarzkopf"). But he's spinning in a dramatic void here. From "Diner" to "Rain Man" to "Avalon," Levinson has long since proven his versatility. Now, perhaps, he knows his limits: he was never cut out to be a flower child.

As strained as "Toys'" whimsy is, at least it comes from some genuinely personal place, which is more than you can say for the rehashed kitsch of Forever Young. It's yet another Rip van Winkle fantasy in which a test pilot (Mel Gibson) gets cryogenically frozen in 1939 and comes back to life in 1992 only to discover that the woman he loved and thought had died is still alive. Last year this movie was called "Late for Dinner." That wasn't great, but it had some quirky moments of true feeling. Here the only hint of real life is supplied by Jamie Lee Curtis as the mother of the boy (Elijah Wood) who discovers Gibson's deep freezer in a military warehouse. Gibson's baffled-hero act is beginning to lose its charm. Young screenwriter Jeffrey Abrams ("Regarding Henry") shows that the synthetic emotions of his earlier film were no fluke. Aimed at both a kiddie audience and adults looking for a good romantic sob story, Steve Miner's film may not be distinctive enough to satisfy either. It's forever stale.

For a while, Leap of Faith tantalizes with its idiosyncratic tone, its up-to take on the evangelical circuit brisk filmmaking, which, unlike so of these Oscar-aspiring movies, doesn't pump itself up with stylistic gas. We've seen stories about con-men preachers before, going back to "Elmer Gantry." What initially seems different about Richard Pearce's movie, written by Janus Cercone, is its refusal to get all morally het-up about the fraudulence of Steve Martins road-show evangelist, Jonas Nightengale, a con artist who produces fake miracles with fancy showbiz footwork and the help of backstage computers. Martin is such an engaging, physically adept performer that one is willing to suspend one's doubt that a Kansas crowd would ever buy his transparently insincere preacher act. But there are other details of dress and behavior the movie gets wrong, partly, I suspect, because Cercone, a music-industry veteran, is forcing the analogy between rock and roll and religion, and grafts the roadie lifestyle of one onto the other.

The bigger problem is that the moviemakers lose their focus and decide that their protagonists need redemption after all. Jonas's cynical partner, played by Debra Winger, falls for the upstanding local sheriff (Liam Neeson) who's out to expose Jonas, and is transformed by the love of a good man. And Jonas, confronted with a crippled boy of true faith (Lukas Haas), suddenly after years of chicanery is stricken with a dubious attack of conscience. By its upbeat, have-it-all-ways climax, "Leap of Faith" has become totally incoherent. The movie is lively but half-baked: it dribbles away its promising subject. Some Christmas feast this has turned out to be: it's like munching on leftovers.