February 8, 2007

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Venus (R)
Peter O’Toole has a dalliance with the audience in Venus, a winking self-referential indulgent movie that has less to do with story-telling than it does with giving O’Toole a chance to saunter through a victory lap.

I suppose when you are this distinguished and talented and have managed to stay alive despite daring behavior, a bit of flattering puffery like Venus is only fair — Hollywood’s version of a retirement party. Like any good retirement party, however, it’s most enjoyed by the feted and his honored guests. Those who happen to walk by the door might smile at a musty joke, chuckle at the light bawdiness but, clearly, the real fun is for the subject of those toasts and not us passers-by.

O’Toole here plays an aging actor named Maurice, though calling him Shmeter ShmoToole would have worked just as well to create the hair’s-width separation between the actor and the slightly exaggerated, slightly less famous character he plays. Maurice relives his Shakespearean glories with buddy Ian (Leslie Phillips) and occasionally appears in small roles in films to help support his ex-wife Valerie (Vanessa Redgrave), with whom he is close but not romantic.

Maurice seems to smirk at the sunset he sees to his life but finds himself in full smile mode when he meets Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), Ian’s lumpish niece. She’s come to care for Ian, who expects a doting nurse who draws his bath and cooks fish. He gets a junk food-slurping, booze-vacuuming couch potato with hazy ideas that her velour-sweat-suit-clad self can land a modeling gig. She is, Ian moans, horrible.

He’s right, except she’s also young and, despite her worst-of-her-generation behavior, quite pretty, at least a quickly smitten Maurice thinks so. He teases her and laughs at her complete lack of culture but he’s enthralled by her youthful beauty (and, indeed, “youth” is really the core of her beauty). She’s understandably icked by his attentions but also hopes she sees the possibility of a sugar daddy in him. They are both, to some extent, disappointed. He doesn’t have enough money for a dress when they go on a shopping trip together and she will let him touch her, but only briefly and in teasing non-committal ways (at one point, she says he can smell her neck but pulls away when he goes in for a taste).

Maurice is for Jessie — whom he calls Venus — an introduction to a wider world, one of culture and refinement but also one where she is more than a rumpled girl (who secretly fears she is “low”) from a small town. She uncovers his gift in jerks and halts, doing plenty of the horrible opportunistic things we fear she will do with such a man at her feet. Maurice, adoring though he is, is not blind to Jessie’s faults and might even love her because of them. He seems to see her roughness, her crudeness as part of her youth and she is for him a window back into a time of smooth skin and limitless possibility.

There’s nothing subtle about any of this and yet it more-or-less works due to the solidness of everyone’s performances. O’Toole and Redgrave could have played their parts in their sleep, but Phillips and Richard Griffiths give their roles as Maurice’s friends enough life to keep their scenes going as well. And Whittaker, on the big screen for the first time in her short career, makes her Jesse more than just a young body. She adds a bit of sympathy so that, by the movie’s end, we are actually interested in her as an independent character, not just for how she relates to and affects Maurice.

This all sounds a lot like praise except, when the movie was over, I was far happier about it’s having ended than I was about having seen it. Venus is not a bad movie but had it starred some nameless 70something instead of O’Toole it would be an insignificant one. It’s a bit like going to a chef’s house for dinner and having him make you a BLT. Sure, it’s not a bad sandwich, but I was hungry for more. B-

Rated R for language, some sexual content and brief nudity. Directed by Roger Michell and written by Hanif Kureishi, Venus is an hour and 35 minutes long and is distributed by Miramax Films in very limited release (it is currently playing at a few theaters in Boston). Look for the film to run at the Screening Room in Newburyport, Mass., in April.