Penis Dentatus

Dreamcatcher is for the boys

In the new horror movie Dreamcatcher, a creature with a puzzling likeness to a penis with dentures gestates within the swollen chests of randomly selected solid citizens of Maine. Upon achieving full tumescence, it rears up and lunges for the crucial anatomical parts of the film's four young male-bonded heroes. This is impolite, but one can't help but see the alien member's point of view—its targets are unspeakable dweebs cursed with a surfeit of humanitarian urges. They're meant to be creature fodder, but the director, Lawrence Kasdan, has other plans. He wants them to be characters with backstories, dreams, values and other such nonsense. Twenty years earlier, as country boys with not a care in the world save their bad '70s haircuts, the foursome saved an ethereal lad named Dudditz from bullying quarterbacks and then, on Dudditz's tip, rescued a little girl marooned down a well. In return for these good deeds, the lovable Dudditz, an idiot savant with a nasty habit of murdering his consonants, conferred on each of the boys his own special powers and threw in some dark hints about trouble yet to come, which they naturally ignored in the interests of a viable horror picture.

We meet them in the present, still bonded but miserable, in large measure because their unique gifts are not being put to proper use. Henry, a psychiatrist improbably played by Thomas Jane, who looks freshly risen from surf, can read people's thoughts and therefore knows when he is being lied to—a dubious power in his line of work. Beaver (Jason Lee) is a happy-go-lucky carpenter plagued by vague premonitions of lurking evil. Pete (Timothy Olyphant), the group's designated loser, is a used-car salesman with an uncanny ability to find lost items, a talent he squanders on trying to score with blonds. And Jonesy (Damian Lewis) is a good-hearted professor with an unusual memory who early on in the movie suffers a terrible accident significantly like the one that not long ago befell Stephen King, on whose novel Dreamcatcher is based. I leave it to you to guess which of these superbly calibrated personalities is expendable and which will live to fight the good fight for the body and soul of America, attractively summarized by one antagonist in the movie as "people who drive Chevrolets, shop at Wal-Mart and never miss an episode of Friends."

Pressing on, the toothy organ, henceforth affectionately known as the "shitweasel," slithers on through rural Maine, leaving a blood-red trail in the snowdrifts (John Seale's photography is gorgeous), until it discovers our four heroes holed up in a mangy log cabin for their annual homage-to-Dudditz retreat. A horror movie with sweetly liberal impulses isn't the snuggest fit, especially one that's based on a novel by Stephen King, a fine crafter of pop metaphors for invasion, contagion, mind control, chaos and any other terrors we may currently be nursing. One dimly sees the ghost of a timely allegory in Dreamcatcher; not since the Cold War has the time been so right for equating the invasion of the body with the invasion of the nation. However, the concept is undercut by the fact that the invader now cozily inhabiting the body of one of our fabulous four sounds—quelle horreur—exactly like Tony Blair.

This is less than surprising when you consider the director is Kasdan, who's known for favoring broad schoolboy humor. Somewhere between King's novel, the screenplay by William Goldman (who also wrote a far better adaptation of King's Misery) and Kasdan's shooting script, both character and metaphor have gone to the dogs, leaving a slew of fart and burp jokes and laying bare Dreamcatcher's driving purpose, which is to make multiplexes full of little boys yuk it up, then gross them out, creep them out, and finally feed them dessert with a crescendo of snowmobile chases, ground-to-air gunfights and a climax that terrifies and finally flatters them into submission. What Morgan Freeman and Tom Sizemore, as a crazed alien-fighter and his heir apparent, are doing in this movie—unless it be to serve up the twisted father-son vibe essential to the demographic—is anybody's guess. And what Lawrence Kasdan is doing in charge is more mysterious yet.

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In production notes for Dreamcatcher, King gamely coughs up the politic view that Kasdan is uniquely qualified to make a horror movie because of his famous cutaway shot to Kevin Costner's stitched wrist in the opening scene of The Big Chill. This would be a slim résumé in almost any business environment but Hollywood, where, notwithstanding its reputation for killing careers overnight, many a player without a serious hit or a decent movie in his recent or distant past keeps right on getting the green light. There are a bunch of reasons for this. Some people marry the boss (William Friedkin) or build such cults around themselves (Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson) that neither studios nor audiences care any longer whether their movies are any good. Kasdan has survived by being a good boy, meaning an earnest limousine liberal with a gift for the broad comedy that passes for satire in big-budget movies. Reneging on the early promise he showed in Body Heat (1981), he made The Big Chill, a crassly entertaining and highly successful vaudeville act that unaccountably cemented his reputation as a master of subtle characterization. His script work on The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi got him friends in high places, and Kasdan spent the next two decades as a writer and director making movies that range from the pleasant (The Accidental Tourist, Grand Canyon, Mumford) to the dreadful (French Kiss and The Bodyguard, a stinker written by Kasdan that made pots of money). In the unlikely event that Dreamcatcher bombs—the movie is too calculated, too marketable, and it bears the Stephen King coat of arms—I've no doubt Kasdan will chug right along, with the moneybags' blessing.

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And then there's Roman Polanski, who has not been a good boy or a pleasant one, but whose picture, The Pianist, has gotten him seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and thus has also gotten many Hollywood knickers in a royal twist about whether the Academy should reward a man accused of the statutory rape in 1977 of an adolescent girl. The girl herself, Samantha Geimer, now an apparently serene suburban mom in her late 30s, has decreed on more than one talk show that the movie should be considered on its merits. In his Los Angeles Timescolumn a couple of weeks ago, Patrick Goldstein agreed with her. "Artists are often unhappy, dissolute, disreputable people," Goldstein wrote, citing Charlie Chaplin's predilection for very young women. "The truth is that we always forgive them their transgressions because, in the end, the inspiration we find in their art outweighs our disapproval of their brutish behavior."

Well, there's brutish and there's brutish. Chaplin married his young women, and none of them was 13 years old, which is too young for consensual anything, let alone sex. There are some degrees of evil I wouldn't forgive under any circumstances: no matter how many tour de force shots there are in Triumph of the Will, the only prize I'd ever give Leni Riefenstahl is Liar of the Century. As it happens, I wouldn't deny Polanski his Academy Award on moral grounds—he has suffered enough and been forgiven, though an apology would have been nice. I'm just not sure The Pianist deserves the award on artistic grounds. It is a moving, noble film, made straight from the heart, and it compares favorably with most of this year's other nominees. Aesthetically speaking, it is an entirely straightforward movie that doesn't begin to measure up to the formal sophistication of Polanski's best work in Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown. Which leads me to suspect that, should the movie win, it would be because, in our American way, we'd be giving Polanski an award not for his art, but for being a more decent human being than we thought he was.

Dreamcatcher was directed by Lawrence Kasdan; written by William Goldman and Kasdan, based on the book by Stephen King; produced by Kasdan and Charles Okun; and stars Thomas Jane, Jason Lee, Timothy Olyphant and Damian Lewis. Now playing countywide.

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