With John Madden at the helm and Nicolas Cage as an opera-singing Italian soldier (complete with dubious accent), Captain Corelli’s Mandolin very easily could have turned into Mussolini in Love. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Granted, the film has its share of problems — something Universal signaled loud and clear when they pushed the release back and handed the film to Madden to recut after underwhelming test screenings. Not only is the casting slightly less than ideal, but the film’s entire approach to accents is … let’s say … odd. The Italian characters tend to boast these comic opera accents, while the Greek characters evidence attempts at Greek accents, and German characters sound like refugees from a WWII propaganda picture. It wouldn’t matter so much except that they’re all speaking English and yet are sometimes supposed to be speaking two or three different languages. Confused? So apparently was director Madden, who seems to have decided to just brazen it out and hope that no one would notice. Considering the fact that Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is an uneasy mix of not-very-believable romance and surprisingly brutal depictions of war, perhaps not too many will notice or care. Much like the movie that marked the start of the summer film season, Pearl Harbor, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (which heralds the end of the big summer releases) uses the war more as a backdrop for its romance than anything else. Captain Corelli is at least honest about it. It never pretends to be anything other than a big, glossy, beautifully packaged love story. It’s old-fashioned entertainment and nothing more. (If David O. Selznick were alive today, he would have bought the source novel and produced this.) Yet strangely, its far simpler depiction of the horrors of war works better than both the millions upon millions of dollars worth of special effects at the center of Pearl Harbor, and, unfortunately, its own love story. The idea was obviously that John Madden would capture the world of his story and the human drama that takes place in that world, as he had done with Shakespeare in Love, and it doesn’t quite come off. Everything’s in place and it’s constantly entertaining (none of the film’s 129 minutes are dull), but somehow it entertains without ever being all that emotionally involving. Blame a lack of chemistry between Cage and Penelope Cruz, who seem to fall in love only because they’ve read the script and know they’re supposed to. Blame Shawn Solvo’s perfunctory script. Blame the whole concept of duplicating an earlier success by copying the mechanics without regard for the content. There’s no shortage of blame to go around. At the same time, this is not a bad movie. As I said, it’s constantly entertaining — it’s also beautiful to look at and occasionally thoughtful (it’s downright cerebral compared to most of what we’ve had this summer). Even while Cage and Cruz don’t generate much heat, it’s hard to really fault their performances as such. (The mere fact that Cage manages to pull off a performance that contains every cliche of every movie that ever featured an Italian soldier in WWII without becoming pure caricature is impressive in itself.) John Hurt is engaging as Cruz’s father, though as much as his performance helps keep the film afloat, it also keeps things firmly in the realm of hard-to-believe romantic movie. Not only is the character just too damned sage, but he keeps coming through dangerous situations with the imperturbable indestructibility of the Frankenstein Monster (collapse a house on this fellow in one scene and you’ll find him dusty, but little the worse for wear, in the next). See Captain Corelli for the scenery, for the entertainment value of its convoluted story, for its take on a rarely examined aspect of WWII (even if some of it is factually dubious). See it as an old-fashioned romantic spectacle. But don’t see it for the Great Movie of the Year, despite what Universal was hoping.
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