Film Scouts Reviews

"The Leading Man"

by Karen Jaehne

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The most noteworthy thing here is that comedian Barry Humphries is in The Leading Man but plays a man, if not the leading one, instead of the comic character upon which he built his reputation, Dame Edna Everedge. Edna was sorely needed to leaven this dough. There is nothing particularly amusing about the English resentment of American stars - but for the bitter truth that they need them even more than they disdain them.

The Leading Man is about Jon Bon Jovi as a big Hollywood star, who invades the persnickety little world that revolves around the belly button of Lambert Wilson - as England's greatest living playwright. It's a stretch, no matter how you look at it. They go nose to nose over their distinctly different thespian ambitions, then measure their manly parts over the director's girlfriend, finally taking on as their final combat the playwright's Italian wife, played by Anna Galiena, who could use some company - on all levels.

Paradoxically, Galiena stands out, because she creates a subtle and credible character out of the abandoned wife who watches her husband lie and betray her, then others. She manages to abandon the playwright for the Hollywood star in a story of slow revenge. This is not so much the story of the leading man, but rather the story of Elena Webb, yet Anna Galiena seems to be alone in seeing it. Galiena has sophistication about drama, so she refuses to be dramatic, which serves her very well in the midst of too much sincerity, too many neuroses and enough self-importance to sink the Titanic. Yes, that one too.

Stretched out to cover the activities of too many characters, the narrative loses a distinctive point of view. There is little suspense, but great interest in watching the playwright's wife come to terms with the extra-theatrical affairs of her husband and gain control over her own life in order to put the man in his place. When Galiena is not on the screen, however, it could just as well be a backstage soap opera.

What I find particularly interesting is the way the American actor is viewed (perhaps because I'm writing a book called As Others See Us about the way Americans are portrayed in European films). This film sums up the anxieties felt by most theater professionals about the cheap tricks and expensive lifestyles of Hollywood stars. In one scene, Jon Bon Jovi puts up a great pretense at being lonely and alienated in a foreign land and searching with furrowed brow for meaning. It's hard to tell if this is directed to reveal the American as an intellectual phony, or if Jon Bon Jovi just can't sustain a performance beyond the two-minute limits of a rock song.

The script is very knowledgeable about the wiles and ways of theater people, but has misplaced its emphasis, in my opinion. Perhaps the dread American habit of trying to goose a career with a turn on stage is threatening the integrity of the English stage. But I don't think that's as interesting as the story of Mrs. Webb, wife of the world's pre-eminent playwright who throws him over for facile California. An English film that got to the heart of that would be more than honest. It would measure the cost of being insular - it might have the sense to be a farce instead of a tragedy. 

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