'Tis Not A Jolly Season

SO MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN about the making of "PhiladelPhia" ("Hollywood finally confronts AIDS"), so many hopes are riding on it, so high is the standard director Jonathan Demme has set for himself that it may be hard to see the movie itself through the fog of expectation. Well, "Philadelphia!' is far from perfect, but it would be hard to imagine the person who could walk away from it unmoved.

The late Vito Russo, author of "The Celluloid Closet," a study of the treatment of gays in the cinema, used to say, "It's not AIDS that's killing us, it's homophobia." This is what "Philadelphia" is about-not a disease, but a climate of intolerance that turns a disease into a stigma. Tom Hanks plays Andrew Beckett, an associate in a prestigious Philadelphia law firm who has kept his sexuality his HIV status and his relationship with his lover Miguel (Antonio Banderas) from his colleagues. As his health starts to deteriorate, he's handed a major case. Before it's done, he's abruptly fired. The firm claims incompetence; he knows it's AIDS discrimination, and is determined to haul his former firm into court. But the only lawyer who will handle his case is Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), an ambulance-chasing personal-injury lawyer--and self-confessed homophobe.

This is the kind of morally symmetrical, social-issue setup we've come to associate with TV movies, and "Philadelphia" doesn't entirely transcend the didactic limitations of the formula. But, oh, how it tries. What's remarkable are all the hackneyed moments Demme and screenwriter Ron ("Mrs. Soffel") Nyswaner don't include--like the announcement of the lawsuit's verdict. We know from the outset that Miller will have a change of heart--he's designed to be the man whom mainstream audiences will identify with--but his transformation is never obvious and never complete. His recognition that his gay client is a victim of discrimination is undoubtedly sharpened by his own experience as a black man, but the analogy remains a resonant subtext. Beckett isn't made a mouthpiece for gay pride, nor does Miller ever confess the error of his ways: only small physical gestures convey the moral distance he has traveled. The movie's most mesmerizing scene is its riskiest one, when Beckett Plays a Maria Callas aria from "Andrea Chenier" for Miller and, transported by the music, tries to explain what it means to him. Here the movie seems to slip out of its own skin and become something wholly unexpected.

Curiously, it's in the usually fail-safe courtroom showdown that the movie is the least convincing. Miller's presentation of Beckett's case is written to make points to the audience, but it sure doesn't look as if he's winning on legal grounds. The casting of sweet-faced Mary Steenburgen as the firm's aggressive attorney is as inspired as the choice of Jason Robards to play the firm's patrician heavy is obvious. It's also odd that Beckett's relationship with Miguel gets such short shrift. Though their brief scenes convey both the tenderness and the irritations of a longtime intimacy, the movie owes us more than this truncated glimpse of our hero's personal life.

You can feel the pressure on the filmmakers to design a film that will speak to the widest possible audience, to reach people who may not know anyone who's died of AIDS. But the film pays a price for it. Heartfelt and stylishly made as "Philadelphia" is, it has, almost by definition, the feel of a movie made from the outside in.

There will be no argument, however, about the film's stars. The superb Hanks doesn't make a false move as the proud, ironic Beckett. This is a reined-in, lawyerly guy, too diffident to advertise his courage, and Hanks moves us deeply by never begging for sympathy. Washington's every bit his equal. Cocky and defensive, he gives us a thoroughly honest portrait of a prejudiced man wrestling with his macho fears. And in the small but touching role of Beckett's mother, Joanne Woodward is luminous. "Philadelphia" may not be the film Demme's fans expect--its emotionalism is unfiltered by cool. But it has the power to open more than a few blinkered hearts.

YOU CAN'T ACCUSE OLIVER Stone of playing it safe. His third attempt to wrestle with the demons of Vietnam--after "Platoon" and "Born on the Fourth of July"--is the first Hollywood movie to tell the story of the war from a Vietnamese perspective. For that alone he merits a salute. And in this highly charged adaptation of two memoirs by Le Ly Hayslip, a Vietnamese peasant girl who saw her family torn apart by the war, suffered atrocities committed by both North and South, and suffered again in southern California as the wife of an abusive American soldier, Stone is also attempting his first woman's epic. But don't expect his cinematic manners to change; the narrator may be female, but the vision is echt Stone. He remains the Mike Tyson of directors, satisfied only with knockout blows.

"Heaven and Earth" comes at you in angry flurries: whatever ghastly indignity Le Ly (Hiep Thi Le) or anyone in her family endured, Stone's camera won't miss a queasy detail--her protracted torture by the South Vietnamese, her rape by a Viet Cong officer. This is powerful stuff (as the overbearing Kitaro score reminds you) but it yields diminishing returns. As her saga leaps over the years and continents, Stone loses his grip on a great, harrowing story, Years pass in the blink of an eye. She's the servant in a rich man's house, a peddler of cigarettes to GIs, a bar hostess, a prostitute, a mother. Children appear who are barely accounted for. In San Diego, where she becomes a successful entrepreneur, the doting husband (Tommy Lee Jones) she met in Nam goes psyche and kidnaps her children. There's enough material here for a miniseries. Crunched into 2 1/4 hours of spasmodic narrative, Le Ly's extraordinary life is reduced to its lurid highlights. Stone's so eager to get to the good stuff (i.e. the bad stuff) that the movie plays like the longest coming-attractions trailer ever made.

Some of the parts are undeniably gripping; what gets lost are the characters themselves. Jones's now charming, now desperate, now cuckoo soldier barely makes sense, and for good reason--he's a composite of four different men in Hayslip's books. Hiep makes an assured debut, but Stone's script never discovers the real woman behind the symbolic martyr. In the end, back in Vietnam, we know what has happened to Le Ly, but we don't who she is. Nor, one suspects, does Stone.

MIKE LEIGH'S STUNNING, CORROSIVE "Naked" is one of the best movies of the year, and one of the toughest: it's not for folks who like their English movies polite and well groomed. Its manic mix of tenderness and degradation, hilarity and scariness, keeps you dangerously off balance. The pulse is set by the protagonist, a golden-tongued drifter named Johnny (David Thewlis), first seen molesting a woman in a Manchester alley, then stealing a car to flee to London, where he seeks out an old girlfriend for a place to crash. A brilliant word spinner with a lacerating wit, the grungy, arrogant, self-destructive Johnny is a singular sociopath: a charming sadist, a compulsive Lothario whose love of women reveals itself, in a clinch, to be hatred. Thewlis (voted Best Actor by the New York Film Critics) is astonishing: his quicksilver performance evokes equal parts pity and revulsion, fondness and horror.

"Naked's" vision of the sexual transactions between men and women is chilling: the brutal Johnny is a lamb compared with the vile Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell), an upperclass predator turned on by inflicting pain--the one character to whom Leigh denies humanity. Leigh's film has been wrongly accused of misogyny, when in fact it's a study of misogyny. The many women, drawn to Johnny like moths to an electric wire--among them the druggy, masochistic Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge) and her hopeful, plain roommate (Lesley Sharp)--are as complexy observed as the men, and as incisively acted.

Leigh ("High Hopes," "Life Is Sweet") is justly famous for the performances he inspires. He outlines his characters to his actors and his scripts are developed by the ensemble through a long process of improvisation. This may be why his movies feel so unpredictably alive. "Naked" keeps you on the edge of your seat, not with plot devices but with its barrage of behavioral revelations. Johnny's chaotic odyssey for human connection leads to some astonishing encounters--with a bookish night watchman (Peter Wight) who shelters him in his building and engages him in an apocalyptically batty theological debate; with a furiously thick Scottish youth searching for his girlfriend. But nobody, ultimately, reaches Johnny. Trapped inside his nihilistic brilliance, he's got nowhere to go but down. Watching this lost soul's flaming descent is a disturbing yet exhilarating experience. Leigh makes art out of his own ambivalence.

GILBERT GRAPE (JOHNNY DEPP), WHO lives in the tiny, backwater town of Endora, Iowa, knows more than any young man should about family obligations. His father long ago hanged himself in the basement. His momma (Darlene Cates), once the town beauty, now weighs 500 pounds and hasn't left the house in seven years, never mind leaving her couch. Gilbert has to keep a constant eye on his brain-damaged, hyperactive 17-year-old little brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who has to be rescued by the fire department every time he scampers up the local water tower; and his two younger sisters rely on him to be the daddy of the house and resent him for it. Stuck in a job as a grocerystore clerk, Gilbert finds his only diversion in a cautiously adulterous affair with an older, married woman (Mary Steenburgen), who knows that she's chosen the one guy who will never get out of Endora. When asked what he wants out of life, Gilbert says,

"To be a good person." And he is. He's sweet, dependable, responsible--and his goodness is draining the life out of him. He's numb with virtue.

"What's Eating Gilbert Grape" isn't the whimsical, arch movie its title, or its grotesque ingredients, might suggest. Directed with honesty and gentle humor by Lasse Hallstrom ("My Life as a Dog"), written by Peter Hedges with a good ear for the eloquence of the inarticulate, this low-key character study never tries to knock your socks off, but if you lean toward it, its poignancy settles under your skin. Hallstrom is an acute observer and a compassionate one, never more so than in the generous way he handles the huge, touching figure of Momma--a figure of fun to the locals, but not to him.

Gilbert's potential salvation comes in the form of Juliette Lewis's Becky, who travels through town in a silver trailer with her grandmother, a girl as mobile as Gilbert is stationary. Their tentative, understated romance has real tenderness, but her freespirited character carries a whiff of contrivance--she's a bow to movie convention, as is the abrupt, upbeat ending. Depp is subtly winning as a man-child oblivious to his own pent-up rage. But the performance that will take your breath away is DiCaprio's. A lot of actors have taken flashy stabs at playing retarded characters and no one, old or young, has ever done it better. He's exasperatingly, heartbreakingly real. This 19-year-old, who shone earlier this year in "This Boy's Life," seems to have a bottomless talent.

NOT EVERY MOVIE THIS CHRISTMAS will leave you in a puddle of tears or Nan existential funk. Here's one you can exit beaming. It's about a 20-year-old Irish working-class girl who announces to her parents she's pregnant--and refuses to say who's the da. Once upon a time this would have been the stuff of turgid melodrama (anybody remember "Blue Denim"?). the beauty of Stephen Frears's modest but richly stocked movie is that it finds an unexpected lode of comedy in Sharon Curley's uncomfortable predicament--and not one laugh is cheap.

Frears has a marvelous script by the Irish novelist Roddy Doyle. "The Snapper" is adapted from the second noel in Doyle's Barrytown trilogy--the first of which was "The Commitments," the basis of Alan Parker's movie. Colm Meaney who played the Elvis-obsess father in that one, is Dessie, the father of "The Snapper's" Curley family a crowded, noisy brood of six in-your-face children. Frears's choreography of the chaotic Curley household is masterfully funny: slapstick realism so effortlessly staged you can't tell the difference between a gag and real life. Mom is played with wise, droll fatigue by Ruth McCabe.

The heart of the tale is in the pub-loving Dessie's relationship with the expectant Sharon (Tina Kellegher), a girl who likes a pint or two herself. A little too much of the sauce got her into trouble in the first place--a one-time drunken encounter with a man who happens to be the father of one of her best friends. How Sharon, her family, her friends and, most of all, her dad, come to terms with the crisis is worked out in lovely details that owe nothing to sitcom formula. This is a fresh view of '90s Roman Catholic Ireland--no talk of sin, and not a priest in view. In an excellent cast, Meaney is a particular delight. Not wanting to lose his daughter, this meat-and-potatoes guy attempts, with baffled eagerness, to turn himself into a sensitive New Man, reading up on childbirth, begging to be at the birth, to make up for all the times he'd missed his own kids' arrivals while hoisting a few at the pub. After so many movies about fathers and sons, it's refreshing to see dads and daughters get their due. As warm and lived-in as an old pair of boots, "The Snapper" is an honorable feel-good movie.