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Review: “In the Soup” (1992)

Most all true Steve Buscemi fans would be hard-pressed to explain the reasons for their infatuation with this unassuming actor. His sparkling personality? Buscemi isn’t likely to win any “life of the party” awards in his lifetime. His dashing good looks? Well, “classically handsome” isn’t a phrase you’d attach to this face. So what’s the secret to his magnetism? Probably it hinges on his ability to seem bitter and ironically detached from life, which has pushed him around, ignored him, beaten him down, made him … average. But Buscemi makes “average” very appealing.

Paramount to understanding the appeal of Alexandre Rockwell’s “In the Soup,” a curious little wisp of a buddy comedy, is understanding that the film relies on Buscemi’s abilities. This is another part that feels tailor-made for Buscemi, or maybe it’s that he has a way of slipping into every part and making them seem tailor-made for him. (He and Frances McDormand have that in common.) So if the odd charms of Steve Buscemi aren’t lost on you, you’ll find yourself rooting for his Adolpho Rollo, an unemployed budding filmmaker with a 500-page script and not enough cash to turn it into a movie. Actually, he doesn’t have any cash — none to pay his ever-feuding landlords (Francesco Messina, Steven Randazzo), none to take out his beautiful neighbor Angelica (Jennifer Beals), whom he keeps promising will be the star of his film. She has learned not to trust men who go on and on about how beautiful she is; that’s how she got stuck with Gregoire (Stanley Tucci, killer-funny in a bit part), the crazy Frenchman she married for a green card. Adolpho assures her some day he’ll be somebody, but why should she believe him? Broke is broke. Divine intervention is required.

Then, in a kind of deus ex machina (the cinema gods have a kooky sense of humor), Adolpho finds Joe (Seymour Cassel), a possible buyer for his script. Joe, a clear foil for Adolpho, is many things: vivacious, suave and possessed of a carpe-diem attitude. He’s also a smooth-talking grifter who associates with some rough characters, including his thuggish brother Skippy (Will Patton), and a midget/gorilla team of drug dealers. Cassel relishes the part and infuses this trickster with enough effervescence to make us wary of his game at the same time we get swept into it. Adolpho seems to know he has no choice but to go along with a guy like Joe. After all, his mother (Ruth Maleczech) likes him.

That’s the thing about Joe: everyone likes him. In motion pictures you can and cannot trust characters everyone likes; you also never quite know what makes them tick. All you know is that they’ll change someone’s life irreversibly and there’s nothing to be done about. So it is with Joe, played with such vigor by Cassel that his possible dirty dealings and obvious mental instability fade into the background. Cassel relishes the part and throws all his energy into it, sometimes dangerously toeing the line to overacting but never crossing it. This leaves Buscemi to do what he does so well: play the straight man, the perpetually sarcastic but perceptive observer who lets life happen to him. The odd couple pairing works reasonably well despite a relative lack of character backstory on both parts. Knowing so little about Adolpho and especially Joe occasionally creates more frustration than the air of mystery Rockwell undoubtedly aims for. There is, however, some merit in a film that ends without boldfacing who every character is, what he has learned and how that knowledge has changed him.

Other parts of “In the Soup” provoke more curiosity than outright enjoyment. Rockwell elects to shoot in black and white, which dates the film even though it’s unclear of the time period and fairly screams “this is art.” The choice is serviceable, but is it necessary? There isn’t much of a storyline and very little action to speak of. As a film, a work of cohesion with a discernible plot and character arcs and action, “In the Soup” falls short. But as a celluloid scrapbook of snapshots — Joe front-and-center, Adolpho hovering at the edges — the film has a retiring charm not unlike the one Buscemi has built his career on.

Grade: B-

Streep delights in charming but flawed “Julie & Julia”

Not even the French can resist the formidable charms of Julia Child/Meryl Streep.

Not even the French can resist the charms of Meryl Streep in "Julie & Julia."

Sing. Dance. Pyschoanalyze. Charm. Interrogate. Make like Hitler in a habit. Cook. The more I watch Meryl Streep, the more I wonder: Is there anything in the whole wide world this actress cannot do?

Short of invasive brain surgery, all signs point to a hearty “no way.”  (Still, if you gave her a copy of “Gray’s Anatomy” and a scalpel, well, who knows?) In “Julie & Julia,” Streep proves anew that she’s an actress undaunted by the prospect of playing any character — even if said character is none other than the legendary Julia Child. Streep dives cheerfully into the role, nailing the shrill rhythms of Child’s famous voice and injecting so much spirit and life into her part you can almost taste the butter in her sole meunière. The fact that she’s no dead ringer for the departed French chef — Streep, in fact, is six inches shy of Child’s 6’2″ — means absolutely nothing. Minutes in, she’ll make you believe she’s Child incarnate. Bon appétit, indeed.

Problem is, Streep is so good that her performance only magnifies one of the film’s biggest flaws — namely, director Nora Ephron’s failure to create two-dimensional husbands. In fairness, “Julie & Julia” is a movie about women, not men, and directors have pigeonholed women in these parts of decades. But Paul Child (Stanley Tucci minus his usual snark) in particular comes off like some sort of smiley angel. Perhaps this is an accurate depiction of his nature — any man who tolerated Julia Child for more than five-minute intervals had intestinal fortitude to spare — but where are the flaws, the humanity? Warts are verboten in such a heart-warmer, but they’d be a welcome addition.

Let’s get back to the good stuff, though. For much of its length “Julie & Julia” succeeds in charming viewers with the story of Julie Powell (the ever-delightful Amy Adams), a government worker who decides to make every recipe in Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and write a blog about her exploits. What begins as a way to escape the strain of dealing with 9/11 victims becomes a journey toward creating something meaningful for Julie, even though she alienates her husband Eric (Chris Messina) in the process. Interspliced with this story is the real-life tale of how Julia Child, newly relocated to Paris in 1948, turned a cooking class into a career that revolutionized French cooking for American women.

Ephron relies on finesse and the interspliced plot method to connect the lives of Julie, a New Yorker dealing with 21st-century problems, and Julia, experiencing fine cuisine in post-World War II Paris. Julie and Julia never met in real life, so this reality demands such creative cinematic contortions from Ephron. The splicing works well enough to be convincing but not so well that we feel as though Julie and Julia share a real connection. Here, suspension of disbelief is a necessity, not a luxury.

The truth? For food cinematography (oh, Bœuf bourguignon, how marvelous thou art) and lead performances as touching as these, I’ll play along. Since this is a foodie film, special attention gets paid to the dishes. There are beauty shots aplenty of everything from sole meunière to pastries to cakes, the kind that almost communicate the life in the dishes as much as the flavor, and there’s a shot of Streep at work in the kitchen that feels like visual poetry, all feeling.

Which takes us back to Adams and Streep. Adams gets short-changed a bit here as Julie, whose story is affecting but not nearly as intriguing as that of the unconventional Julia Child. Ever the intuitive actress, though, Adams manages to squeeze more raw feeling from her part than a weaker actress could, letting us see how Julie’s project is a way to give her life meaning. We can’t help but cheer her on. It’s Streep, however, who commands our attention by creating a woman of intelligence, fearlessness and great passion. Child understood that to enjoy food was to embrace life. This, in the end, might be the force that makes “Julie & Julia” such a treat for the senses.

Grade: B-