Matt Zoller Seitz
directed by Sidney LumetJohn Cassavetes' 1980 Gloria was easily that director's most conventional feature, and frankly, it wasn't very good?sort of a mobbed-up reworking of the Japanese comic book Lone Wolf and Cub, in which a lone warrior protects a child against legions of would-be assassins. It was a baldfaced bid for commercial success. But it had grimy bits of life in it, a few dandy sequences and a smashing lead performance by Cassavetes' wife and frequent leading lady, Gena Rowlands.
Enter Sidney Lumet to finish the job. That his remake of Gloria is a disaster shouldn't surprise anybody; most recent films by Lumet have been disasters of one sort or another, as have most so-called serious pictures starring Sharon Stone. Still, the sheer incompetence of the film took me by surprise. Demi Moore movies aside?I file most of those under cartoons anyhow, along with their plasticized star?there hasn't been a big budget vehicle for an A-list actress this silly and boring since, well, Lumet's A Stranger Among Us, which unleashed blowsy, big-bootied sexpot Melanie Griffith on a community of brooding Hasidim in Brooklyn. (I will always cherish Griffith's reaction when Eric Thal's theology student reads her an erotic passage in Hebrew; her face scrunches up in salacious excitement and she squeaks, "Why, yew li'l devil!") It reeks of Hollywood packaging, and the package stinks. If you didn't know it was made by the same guy who gave us Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network and Q&A, you'd think it was directed by a man who'd never seen a movie, much less made one. It looks like it was shot on leftover 16 mm film stock that spent most of the past two decades moldering in somebody's garage, and Lumet blocks the scenes with all the nervy intelligence of Ed Wood. It's a wonder the actors don't accidentally bump into each other on camera; if they did, Lumet is so disconnected from the images that he probably wouldn't have caught it in the editing room anyway. I've seen most of the actors before, and they're all capable of doing good work (including Stone). But this time they're pinned onscreen like butterflies mounted in a display case. They often deliver their lines with half-confused expressions, as if they aren't sure what Lumet wants from them, or even what direction they're supposed to be looking in. Jeremy Northam, who plays Stone's gangster ex, Kevin, is a Brit pretending to be a tough New Yorker, and like a lot of Brits pretending to be tough New Yorkers he seems to have acquired his characterization from Bowery Boys movies. He always appears to be chewing something. George C. Scott has a couple of scenes as a top mobster on whose mercies Gloria, a former lover, hurls herself. Scott is one of the great stage and screen actors in American history, and his determination to keep working into his eighth decade on the planet is truly inspiring, so it is with the appropriate amount of trepidation and awe that I implore him to please retire before he embarrasses himself further. He looks like he can hardly stand and breathe at the same time; even sitting on a park bench seems to take a lot out of him. And to judge from his apropos-of-nothing pauses, grimaces and eye-rolls, he either can't control his body language any longer or isn't interested in trying. A stunning percentage of the actors share Scott's physical ineptitude. One of the first things they teach actors in drama class is what to do with their hands during conversations so as not to look nervous or untrained. This bunch appears to have forgotten those basic lessons. They gesticulate and shrug and flex their fists and pat their thighs like passengers on a cross-country bus waiting in line for the restroom. Stone is simply an embarrassment. Forget her Sally Struthers-on-All-In-The-Family accent; this woman has forgotten how to act in the same frame with other performers?as opposed to acting at them. She flutters her hands and waves her arms and moves her head around as if doing a parody of a tough New York chick on Saturday Night Live. When she kidnaps the orphaned little boy, Nicky Nunez (Jean-Luke Figueroa), to get back at Kevin for not appreciating the time she served to protect him, she orders Kevin and his henchman to strip by bellowing, "I want all o' youse to take off ya clothes!" "I am not facking a-round!" replies Kevin, who apparently grew up in the part of New York City that contains Big Ben. The high school stage production of Serpico produced by the hero of Rushmore was more harrowing. The first sign that we're not in Cassavetes territory anymore comes in the very first sequence, when Gloria gets out of a women's prison in Miami after serving three years for refusing to rat on Kevin. The prison authorities hand Gloria a striking black dress with a nearly open front held together by long brass fasteners?the thing she was wearing when she got arrested. It's not the dress of a 40ish gun moll, it's the kind of dress an aerobicized movie star might wear to the Oscars. From the second you see Stone in her prison garb studying that gorgeous black dress, the movie goes laughably wrong. Her face looks too pampered, her body too obsessively toned and sculpted and, judging from her spectacularly teased tresses, this particular penitentiary is equipped with a high-fashion hair salon. When the prison guard gives Gloria the dress, you can almost see two roads diverging. Go in one direction, and the realistic thing happens: Gloria tries on the skintight dress and after three years of sedentary living and fatty foods, it no longer fits. Go in the stupid movie direction and Gloria slips the dress on with no trouble. Guess which path Lumet chooses? Like William Goldman says, you gotta give the star everything. This film goes the extra mile, struggling in vain to make Stone glamorously unglamorous?a contradiction in terms, but apparently a necessity if you want an A-list performer to topline your feature. Cassavetes' original didn't exactly make Rowlands look dumpy, but it somehow managed to keep her beauty and grooming within the outer limits of realism. When Rowlands' Gloria was on the run for her life, she looked great because the character was a clotheshorse and a proud woman who carried herself with a bit of swagger?not because she had an army of makeup people tweezing and primping her between takes. Stone's makeup in this picture is so elaborate?so much effort expended on behalf of a phony naturalistic look?that it further falsifies a story that's contrived to begin with. Stone isn't the only performer whose glamourpuss treatment ruins the mood. The mob accountant has a Hollywood waiter haircut and sculpted eyebrows, and his wife, Nicky's mother, is played by Sarita Choudhury of Mississippi Masala, whose lush black hair, long legs and spectacular breasts do more to distract from the drama of the massacre sequence than a phalanx of animated mice crooning, "What Now My Love" while pedaling itty bitty unicycles across the bottom of the screen. For some reason, none of the individual aspects of this production match up. The obsessively controlled wardrobes, hair and makeup are at odds with the drab photography and sleep-inducingly dull compositions. The boring look of the film?which says, "It's just an ordinary day in New York," or "Just one story in the naked city," or perhaps, "Who gives a damn?"?contrasts bewilderingly with Howard Shore's melancholy and sometimes touching strings-and-piano score. The massacre sequence in the beginning of the movie looks grim and fairly realistic, but you can't really take the violence seriously when the hitman is character actor Mike Starr, who's played so many sweet galoots so convincingly that it's hard to accept this glib, sadistic brute as anything but an arbitrary and unconvincing change of pace. If you're inclined to give legendary filmmakers the benefit of the doubt, you'll assume the drab, unimaginative style is a preparation for a realistic (or at least unglamorous) urban drama?a return to the 70s, when common wisdom held that you could have truth or beauty but rarely both, and many feature filmmakers consequently favored gray or brown color schemes, medium shots and unfancy cutting. But remember, though Lumet's 70s classics were intentionally directed in an unflashy, quasi-documentary way, they looked beautiful and moved with wit and grace; remember the lyrical montage that opened Dog Day Afternoon, and the luminous night photography in Network and Serpico? Gloria, in contrast, looks like it was made by people who weren't paying attention to anything; people who just wanted to get through the experience and go home. The entire enterprise reeks of bad faith, bad ideas and desperation, which is doubtless why it wasn't screened for critics and why, despite Stone's name recognition and a suitably conscientious ad campaign by Columbia Pictures, it has earned approximately nine dollars and 78 cents. Maybe the actors' weird hand gestures are a secret signal to the audience: Run while you still can.