Class Dismissed

Hollywood mines more gold from common folk

Anyone who was paying attention on Nov. 7 had to notice something interesting about the colors on the electoral map. Al Gore won the popular vote and stayed close in the count of electors primarily due to the blue states on the edges of the country, while the physical bulk of the U.S. sported a near-seamless spread of red. That same division exists in the world of show business. Folks in the blue states produce entertainment for the folks in the red states, and even though in some ways these two groups have different value systems, red staters have long been captivated by the glamorous goings-on in the land of blue.

Meanwhile, the blue staters periodically display a similar fascination (and confusion) about what the reds are up to. This holiday season there are two big-studio films—Disney's The Emperor's New Groove and Universal's The Family Man—about wealthy egocentrics forced to spend some time with the lumpen proletariat and thereby learn what life is really about. In a way, movies like these represent a clever Hollywood formula: congratulate hardworking Middle Americans on their innate goodness and then sit back and count the money. But there's a flipside to that, as well-heeled filmmakers castigate their own venality while taking shallow pride in their ability to recognize their flaws.

The Disney film features the voice of David Spade as Kuzco, the self-centered young emperor of an ancient South American jungle kingdom. When a scheming adviser named Yzma (Eartha Kitt) uses a potion to change Kuzco into a llama, the exiled ruler has to team up with big-hearted peasant Pacha (John Goodman) to get back his human form and his throne.

The Emperor's New Groove represents a slightly new approach for Disney. No one breaks into song (save for the opening and closing themes), and the humor is based on a barrage of sight gags broken up by odd bits of intentionally awkward exchanges between characters. The style is inspired by Madmagazine, the Marx Brothers and Seinfeld, and not surprisingly, the best character in the film is Yzma's dim servant Kronk, voiced by Seinfeld alum Patrick Warburton, who has the proper rhythm to play this kind of self-conscious comedy.

But despite some funny moments, the picture doesn't exactly shine. Although lushly animated as always, the writing and action of this expensive Disney feature aren't much better than a cheaply produced Cartoon Network original like Dexter's Laboratory or Cow & Chicken—in fact, the TV shows may be better because they don't seem to be trying so hard. This Emperor isn't only overbearing; it's also fairly heartless, despite Kuzco's eventual lesson that there's no "llama" in "team." Maybe that's because the message under the message is that mean people can change, whereas ugly people like Yzma are rotten to the bone. Still, the film is likely to do very well, thanks to a snappy pace and loads of slapstick; kids especially will respond enthusiastically to the bratty nose-thumbing.

The Family Man should do well, too, and may become a Yuletide perennial, despite some gratuitous sex that pointlessly pushes its rating to PG-13. Nicolas Cage stars as Jack Campbell, a millionaire Wall Street executive who wakes up on Christmas morning to find that he's living in Teaneck, New Jersey; married to college sweetheart Kate (Tea Leoni); raising two kids; and working as a tire salesman. A mysterious stranger (Don Cheadle) explains that this is "a glimpse" of what his life would have been like if he had stayed with Kate rather than pursued his career.

Brett Ratner directs from a script by David Diamond and David Weissman that is similar to (though clearly not cribbed from) Rachel Griffiths' Australian film Me Myself I. The key difference is that the Griffiths vehicle was much more subtle, with its life-switching protagonist reveling in her ability to master domestic life while cursing its limitations. The Family Man, by contrast, is pretty pat in its assessment of careerists and suburbanites. Even though Teaneck is barely an hour's drive from New York City, no one Jack encounters there seems to have the slightest interest in culture or refinement; it's all bowling and retail. The only unexpected wrinkle the filmmakers bring is that the NYC version of Jack is not—as would be the norm for this sort of story—a miserable jerk. Even before his "glimpse," he seems to be zestfully enjoying himself.

Give credit partly to Cage, who steps out from behind his shtick at times during the movie, showing a real complexity of feelings about his character's odd turn of events. Mostly, he's befuddled by his attraction to his old-flame-turned-wife—an attraction that makes sense, given the superb performance by Leoni, who reacts to her husband's sudden strangeness with a lovely smile and the glow of inner peace. The charisma of the two leads—and a surprisingly careful control of tone and pace by Ratner—makes up for the predictability of the story and its simultaneously dreary and starry-eyed take on working-class life. And shameless or not, this paean to home and hearth does have an emotional pull, especially when Jack realizes that he may wake up one day and be back in his old life.

Of course, both The Emperor's New Groove and The Family Man do restore order in the end, with their heroes still rich and powerful but changed by their adventures. This completes the fantasy for both the audience and the filmmakers, as each gets to spend a little time in the worlds of privilege and of family warmth, respectively. Happy endings in American movies rarely stop at mere happiness; having a stack of cash is the dressing on the side. That's the green line that surrounds both the reds and the blues.

The Emperor's New Groove was directed by Mark Dindal; produced by Randy Fullmer; written by Jonathan Roberts and David Reynolds; and stars the voices of David Spade, Eartha Kitt, John Goodman, Owen Wilson and Patrick Warburton. Now playing countywide; The Family Man was directed by Brett Ratner; produced by Alan Riche, Howard Rosenman, Marc Abraham and Tony Ludwig; written by David Diamond and David Weissman; and stars Nicolas Cage, Don Cheadle, Harve Presnell, Jeremy Piven and Tea Leoni. Opens Dec. 22. Countywide.

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