Monday, February 11, 2008

Fool's Gold

By Elise Nakhnikian

Unlike that perpetually intense ping-pong player in the Movie Fone ad, I’m usually in the mood for just about any kind of movie. But lately, after a long run of deep-dish year-end art-house movies, I’ve been longing for a light romantic comedy.

So when I settled in for Fool’s Gold, diet Coke and popcorn in hand, I was hoping against hope (I’d seen the trailer) to be transported to that rom-com fantasy island where the lead characters are gorgeous, the sidekicks are a hoot, the endings are happy, and the dialogue crackles with barely sublimated sexual attraction.

But the aptly named Fool’s Gold, it turns out, isn’t a romantic comedy at all. A herky-jerky action-adventure story, it uses a romance run aground as the MacGuffin to set the overstuffed plot in motion, then keeps throwing in distractions in a desperate attempt to maintain a brisk pace.

Screenwriters John Claflin and Daniel Zelman, who previously collaborated on the sequel to Anaconda and They Nest, a made-for-TV horror movie, appear to have conceived of Fool’s Gold as an update of The Palm Beach Story, a Preston Sturges screwball comedy. So far, so good; if you’re going to steal, by all means steal from the best. But Claflin, Zelman, and director Andy Tennant (Fools Rush In, Hitch) dumb the story down at every turn, substituting character-based humor and witty dialogue with violent slapstick and making the search for money the movie’s subject, not its subtext.

The actors playing all the major characters are also a lot more clayfooted than those in the 1942 release. The wife who’s divorcing a husband she still loves because he’s broke was a tartly enchanting creature, as played by Claudette Colbert in Palm Beach, but Kate Hudson’s Tess seems merely peevish. The rich man the wife hooks up with is a comically effete milquetoast in the original, but Nigel Honeycutt, his counterpart in Fool's Gold is given far too much gravitas by an actorly Donald Sutherland, who looks about as comfortable with a stiff upper lip as he would in a rainbow-colored Afro. He can’t even quite make the man’s speech sound human, resorting at one point to the Yoda-esque query: “Married, are you getting?”

As for the husband, the steak tartare of Joel McCrea has been traded for the McDonald’s all-beef patty of Matthew McConaughey. The actor takes off his shirt every few minutes, as if hoping that the sight of his tanned and toned flesh will distract us his surprising dearth of charisma -- not to mention chemistry with his costar.

Tess gets a job on Nigel’s yacht and McConaughey’s Finn follows her there. Setting up and then playing out the estranged couple’s cat and mouse courtship as they play tourist in the land of the rich is the sum total of The Palm Beach Story, whose characters are slyly named Tom and Gerry – and it’s more than enough to keep us entertained.

But Fool’s Gold is as flatflooted as Palm Beach is fleet. While the people in Palm Beach are constantly talking, inserting innuendoes at every turn, Fool’s Gold alternates expository speeches with long stretches of near-wordless action. As if they knew their dialogue needed propping up, the filmmakers pile on too many subplots, too many guns, and too much violence, even a couple of deaths. There are also boy toys galore: fishing boats, a sleek yacht, jet skis, a helicopter, a sea plane – and, of course, Hudson and a juicy Alexis Dziena in skimpy swimsuits and tight diving suits.

Hudson looks good, all right, and so does McConaughey, but together they have all the appeal of oatmeal. We’re supposed to think they had a world-class sex life – Tess is always talking about it. But it’s hard to imagine, since they look and act like brother and sister, two hard-bodied members of some lost Kennedy-esque clan.

In the great screwball comedies, the couples always fought right up until the moment when they got together. But their mostly verbal swordplay was a game they both enjoyed – and a sign of how well matched they were. They may have sometimes doubted that they should be together, but the audience never did.

When Hudson slugs McConaughey, you just wonder why one of them doesn’t take out a restraining order already and put us all out of our misery.

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