Instinct


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Instinct directed by Jon Turtletaub Hopkins' Macho Misfire In Instinct, 62-year-oldAnthony Hopkins plays an ape expert named Ethan Powell, who lived among themountain gorillas of Rwanda for several years until he went berserk and murderedtwo Rwandan soldiers for reasons unknown. Now he's incarcerated in the psychowing of a maximum security penitentiary, where he remains mute by choice andmostly keeps to himself, except when he's punching the living hell out of bully-boyinmates and sadistic guards who pick on the weaker prisoners.


Which isa long way of saying that Hopkins is playing Sean Connery's part in?well, prettymuch any Connery picture made after The Untouchables. Like Connery inThe Rock, Powell is a brooding slyboots who's old enough to have a thirtysomethingdaughter (Maura Tierney) but still tough and sexy and charming, with cascadingivory hair extensions hiding his magnetic eyes. He doesn't get laid in thisfilm, but boy, you know he could if he felt like it. He's a fount of wisdomfor the young, a natural leader, and he can whip six or seven burly guys intheir 20s without getting winded. In the first 15 minutes of Instinct,he escapes a posse of G-men at Miami International Airport and leads them ona foot chase that ends in a mad melee near the ticket counter, with Ethan slingingyoung cops around like sacks of laundry while bellowing like the Hulk passinga kidney stone. Aghast travelers on the sidelines flinch, perhaps from the overpoweringsmell of testosterone.


The filmmakersshould have gone all the way and had Hopkins beat the cops to death with hispenis.


I don'tknow about you, but I've had just about enough of movies about hale and heartyguys in their 50s and 60s who show the young turks how it's done. A romancebetween a gorgeous 25-year-old and a still-sexy senior, an action flick starringa man older than Gary Cooper when he died, a macho wilderness adventure aboutan old rich man with a sexy young wife who can still kill a grizzly with a pocketknife lashed to a stick?individually, these films can be entertaining, eveninspiring in a low-down, goofy way. But taken cumulatively, they seem a tadpathetic. Cary Grant gracefully bowed out of young-man roles after he hit 60,and Charlton Heston, Gregory Peck and John Wayne tempered their heroism withfrank admissions of diminished vitality. It's hard to shake the suspicion thatmodern silverback superstars like Hopkins and Connery (and Harrison Ford andMorgan Freeman, who are getting up there) are being youthed-up to please a wafer-thinslice of the demographic pie: middle-aged male entertainment industry execswho are looking Death square in the face for the first time and desperatelywishing they could punch it in the nose and head off to the spa for a relaxingaromatherapy session with their trophy wives. When a pushing-70 Clint Eastwoodacts the hero while admitting world-weariness and complaining of muscle fatigueor a head cold, Hollywood cliche melds with truth, and the result is witty andtouching. But when Hopkins makes like the Tasmanian Devil in Instinct,or Connery dangles from a rope with one hand while machine-gunning foes withthe other, it's emotional Viagra.


Directedby Jon Turtletaub and written by Gerald Dipego?the credits say the script was"inspired by" a novel called Ishmael, which is always a badsign?Instinct is a crazy quilt of homages. There's a little bit of ThePrince of Tides in the mix, with Ethan remaining stubbornly mute duringthe first part of the movie and gradually opening up to his psychiatrist, TheoCaulder (Cuba Gooding Jr., so earnest and driven he makes Tom Cruise look likea stoic lump). There's quite a bit of Gorillas in the Mist, particularlyin the inevitable flashbacks that show Ethan venturing deep into 'rilla countryand living silently among them. There are also flashes of Awakenings,with the careerist doctor being "awakened" after treating a singularlydisturbed patient. And there are hints of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,with Ethan and Theo joining forces to break the calcified back of the hospital'sbureaucracy, end prison guard brutality and obtain decent treatment for theother inmates. It's hooey from frame one.


But didit have to be such somber hooey? And did the script have to be so lumpy andunfocused? As always, given the allegedly "collaborative" nature ofHollywood filmmaking, I'm reluctant to blame the writer; Instinct showsserious signs of tampering, by who I'm not sure.


Mistakenumber one is the ungainly shape of the narrative, which arbitrarily keeps Hopkinssilent for the first 40 minutes while his costar bangs his figurative head againstthe wall figuring out how on Earth to convince the older man to speak. WhenEthan finally does speak, it becomes clear that his muteness was arbitrary?supposedlya statement against the evilness of industrialized society, but really justa cheap mystery-building gimmick. Within a scene or two, he's chattering awaylike Anthony Hopkins on a talk show, pausing occasionally to humiliate the hellout of the young doctor in the name of teaching some sort of lesson. There'salso a subplot about the feud between Ethan and his daughter, and another subplotabout a vicious prison guard (John Ashton) who abuses the weakest of the inmatesand Theo's principled attempts to undermine him. All this stuff might have beenworth watching if treated separately in another film, but here it serves asan irritating distraction from the central mystery of what happened to Ethanin Rwanda.


Which bringsus to mistake number two: the flashback structure. I once again restate my objectionto films where a couple of people slowly get to know each other so that thefirst person ultimately can tell a very interesting and very important storyto the second, thereby enriching the second person's emotionally impoverishedlife. Sometimes these framing devices work, as in Saving Private Ryanand The Princess Bride, but not without raising a host of valid objectionsin the process. And when the framing device is the movie, as in Instinctand the recent Irish melodrama This Is My Father, the audience asks theinevitable question: If the story told in flashback is so important and transformative,why didn't the movie just tell that story instead of wasting our timewith the buildup? There's a perverse narcissism to Hollywood's increasing relianceon flashback structures: They allow filmmakers to pat themselves on the backfor their ability to move people; the congratulation takes the form of a framingdevice in which fictional characters are deeply moved by having been told astory. It's the film's way of applauding itself so you don't have to.


What's especiallygalling is that the story told in flashback is usually more moving, or at leastlooks more interesting, than the framing narrative that encloses it.The flashback sequences in Instinct are a perfect illustration of thisphenomenon. They are genuinely magical. Told almost without dialogue?just limitedvoiceover narration from Hopkins?the scenes show Ethan, a slightly arrogantloner, finding peace and harmony among the great silverback gorillas. You justknow from his easy interaction with them that he's a decent person, not thevicious murderer described by authorities?he's the hero, for crying out loud,how could it be otherwise? But the point of these scenes is not to confirm thescript's predictability; the point is to show a bond developing between a humanbeing and an allegedly less complex relative on the evolutionary ladder. Special-effectswizard Stan Winston, who created the primate suits for Gorillas in the Mist,repeats the feat here to even more convincing effect, and he's helped mightilyby Turtletaub's sensitive direction and Hopkins' expert reactions. In the framingsequences, Hopkins is mostly leaning on his movie star mystique, but in theflashbacks he's truly acting?mostly with his eyes, but also, when threatenedby an alpha male gorilla, with slumped shoulders and a respectfully bowed head.


A littlemore modesty, coupled with storytelling common sense, might have resulted ina much better (or at least not as frequently incompetent) movie. As is, muchof Instinct seems devoted to telling us over and over again what a stunninglywise, magnetic and tough fellow Ethan is. It's unseemly: Like the worst of Connery'smovies, and like Clint Eastwood's action pictures pre-Heartbreak Ridge,it plays like a multimillion-dollar infomercial for a great movie star who needsno such thing. A film like this strikes me as much more corrupt than ThePhantom Menace: Where the latter is an ambitious but deeply flawed blockbustermade with childlike enthusiasm, Instinct, its jungle flashbacks aside,feels completely calculated. It's an advertisement for its actors and itself?anda bad one.
Framed
Race matters:Speaking of Instinct, I'd love to see some of the critics who goton a high horse about the goofy pan-national alien characters in PhantomMenace expend a bit of moral capital targeting the ugly racist subtext inTurtletaub's movie; it's a hell of a lot more offensive than Jar Jar Binks'fumble-tongued yammerings.

Cuba GoodingJr., who won an Oscar playing a fully rounded modern black man with a functionalmarriage in Jerry Maguire, took a giant step backward playing Robin Williams'grinning, buck-naked spirit guide in What Dreams May Come, and he degradeshimself further in Instinct. He makes a supposedly race-blind supportingrole into a clueless nonwhite suckup character, submitting to indignities herethat Tom Cruise wouldn't have stood for 13 years ago, and that Chris O'Donnellor Brendan Fraser wouldn't stand for today. In one sequence, Hopkins grabs Gooding'sbuppie shrink character in a headlock, mashes his tear-streaked face againsta table and makes him write on a piece of paper the word that describes whatthe gorilla expert has "taken" from him. (The answer is, "illusions."Deep, huh?) And in the big farewell scene at the end, Gooding blubbers likelittle Ricky Schroder at the end of The Champ; it might have been thedirector's wrongheaded choice, or maybe Gooding is just one of those actorswho get emotionally overwhelmed and can't help squirting a few, but consideringthe cynical fantasyland nature of the movie, it's weird and embarrassing. (Goodingalso is permitted no romantic sparks with white female costar Tierney; big surprisethere.)


Just asodious is the film's refusal to acknowledge the racial land mines strewn throughoutthis script. Instinct is the kind of clueless Hollywood fantasy thatpairs up a white scientist who killed two black men in Africa with a black Americanshrink, then cuts without comment from a flashback closeup of a gorilla to acloseup of Cuba Gooding's face and seems to have no clue as to what that transitionmight mean. It's just as offensive to suggest, as the script does, that theaudience should be more moved by the plight of mountain gorillas in Rwanda thanby the deaths of the two black Rwandan military men who were murdered by theold white hero.

Smoked out:June 9-22, Film Forum runs The Last Cigarette, an engaging and ultimatelyexasperating found-footage documentary about the rise and fall of smoking inWestern civilization. Codirected by Kevin Rafferty (Feed) and Frank Keraudren,it's a jaunty trip through a century's worth of Hollywood clips, industrialand educational films and tv commercials ("Coughs due to smoking disappear!"promises a 1950s Philip Morris commercial). This stuff is cleverly intercutwith excerpts from the 1994 congressional "hearings" on the dangersof smoking. I put the word "hearing" in quotes because that entireaffair was ridiculous?a melding of amateur Perry Mason theatrics and neo-McCarthyistbullying that might have actually set the cause of tobacco regulation back afew years.

The centralimage in the movie is California Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman, whoserelentless badgering of subpoenaed tobacco company bigwigs actually managedto make these weasels seem sympathetic. In C-SPAN footage, perched behind thatkangaroo-court table, Waxman looks like he died and went to weenie heaven; heand his equally pompous cronies seem oblivious to incontrovertible evidencethat the tobacco industry is already systematically killing itself in the courtsand the media and needs no help from the legislature. As framed by the filmmakers'editing choices, Waxman is transformed from an opportunistic political hackinto an uber-scold: He's every killjoy whose pinch-lipped scorn encouraged otherwisereasonable people to keep on killing themselves in the name of principled resistance.


Raffertyand Keraudren take us through just about every imaginable aspect of the smokingcontroversy, from advertising and youth pandering to Hollywood glamorizationand 16-mm antismoking propaganda movies in which wooden teen actors say thingslike, "If it's so easy to quit, how come my dad can't stop?" It getsa little tiresome after a while; you start to feel as though you're seeing variationson the same argument replayed over and over with different images and music.But it's fun all the same, and the use of Bernard Herrmann's soundtrack fromVertigo is inspired. Hitchcock's film was about a self-destructive obsessionwith a dearly departed lover. As an ex-smoker who still lapses from time totime and savors each sweet puff, I sympathized.


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