Seven Holiday Treats

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PIERRE VINET/NEW LINE

THE RACE IS ON! The regal Mortensen helps make the saga’s final chapter a front runner

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A real estate wrangle is not the first place movie folks would normally go for drama. But that reckons without the strength of the characters Andre Dubus III created for his novel or the detailed care with which writer-director Perelman has brought them to the screen in his first feature. The minute we meet them all (including Iranian actress Aghdashloo, who is great as the colonel's timorous, sweet-souled wife), we sense that we're in the presence of darkly fated lives.

Connelly's Kathy may be flaked out, but she has the kind of self-destructive strength such people can muster when they are fighting for the shreds of their history, their last hope of respectability. Kingsley's work as the colonel is simply astonishing, just possibly the performance of the year. He's a prissy, legalistic sort of man who feels that his hope of claiming a corner of the American Dream is being savaged by a crazy lady. And his growing rage, made the more terrible by his effort to control it, is harrowing to behold.

As reversible misunderstandings grow into irreversible tragedy, it slowly dawns on you that this is a superior, heartbreaking film. --By Richard Schickel

STUCK ON YOU
Directed by Bobby Farrelly and Peter Farrelly
Starring Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear

On those rare occasions when you think about them, you do kind of wonder how Siamese (or to use the more p.c. word, "conjoined") twins manage the more intimate aspects of life — having sex, going to the bathroom, rolling over in bed. Quite nicely, according to the Farrelly brothers. A little too nicely, for fans of their raucously transgressive films such as There's Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber.

In Stuck on You, the Farrellys have twinned those likable actors Damon and Kinnear — the former playing Bob, the shy, anxious sibling; the latter playing Walt, a more outgoing type — and the best material in the film is about their goofy adeptness in sports and work. But then the plot sends them from humble Martha's Vineyard to glamorous Hollywood because Walt wants to be, of all things, an actor. This isn't a bad idea, and there's some fun stuff as he finds unlikely success hobnobbing with Meryl Streep and co-starring with Cher.

But Bob falls in love, which makes him simpy; success dulls Walt's edge; and when they have an operation to separate themselves, they discover that they needed each other more than they knew. At this point, the picture starts administering glucose injections into America's already sugar-laden bloodstream. The Farrellys need to remember this: Sappiness is easy, comedy is hard. --R.S.

MONA LISA SMILE
Directed by Mike Newell
Starring Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal

Can a school sue for libel? Wellesley College might have a case against this well-intentioned weepie, set at the Seven Sisters school 50 years ago (and partly shot there last fall). To judge from the Lawrence Konner — Mark Rosenthal script, Wellesley bred its bright students to be overachievers in the kitchen, not the workplace, and it attracted snoots and rich brats who'd haze a new teacher with their contempt — even if that teacher was Roberts.

Roberts (who's pretty good in an impossibly saintly role) is Katherine, a Berkeley grad who was hired as an art instructor but teaches the girls How to Live. She's the paragon of wit, grit and liberality. Everyone else is a mess. The teachers have guilty secrets that the viewer will deduce long before they are revealed. The students — bigoted or spiteful or weak — must have their minds shaped and bent by Katherine, then confess their sins to the world. Her technique: personal liberation through public humiliation.

With Katherine's lectures on the dead-artists society, the movie seems to tout rebellious originality. In fact, it's a lesson in emotional conformity. Each character is given a single trait to pursue into caricature: Dunst's icy schemer, Gyllenhaal's neurotic man chaser, Julia Stiles' timid intellectual. Actors' rolled eyes, grimaces and fretful pouts quickly cue viewers to the stereotypes. And every 15 minutes we get what the film thinks is its money shot: Roberts' smile.

Maybe Wellesley isn't the only injured party here. Can an audience sue for cruel and edifying punishment? --R.C.

BIG FISH
Directed by Tim Burton
Starring Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup

Boy, did we want to love this one! Burton, master fabulist, filming a script by John August (he wrote the zesty ensemble comedy Go), adapted from Daniel Wallace's much cherished novel. Dreamboat du jour McGregor heading an attractive cast. Magic realism rampant on a bed of family angst. Should work.

Doesn't, though.

You recall the boy who cried wolf? Edward Bloom (Finney) is the man who cried fish. He loves telling stories of his wondrous adventures as a young man (in which he is played by McGregor). But to his son (Crudup), the tales just smell fishy. Will the two men reconcile on Dad's deathbed? Could Edward's lies be true?

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