Courtesy Photo
Opened: Friday, January 30, 1998
Rated: R

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

Starring Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Hank Azaria, Chris Cooper, Anne Bancroft & Robert De Niro.

"Great Expectations"

I should probably preface this review by saying that I've never much cared for Charles Dickens, and with the exception of that annoying little ditch rat Oliver Twist, I find the characters in "Great Expectations" to be his most insufferable.

Still, I was willing, even eager, to see the 1990s revisionist "Great Expectations" with Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow that opens this weekend. Who knows? Maybe a modern setting and a little creative license would spruce up the dreary old tome.

Alas, the refurbishment turned into a fire sale in its rush to draw the MTV crowd and will probably look most familiar to those who read only the Cliffs Notes for Lit class instead of the novel.

In this stylistic, Steady-Cam version of Dickens' story, Paltrow plays Estella, an aloof sexpot who has been trained to be a ruthless tease by her aunt, a certifiably insane Norma Desmond-wannabe named Ms. Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft in plaster of Paris age make-up).

It seems old Auntie was abandoned at the altar some decades ago (her decaying, vine-infested mansion is still set for the reception), and is seeking revenge on the male species.

At age 10, Estella is introduced to our hero Finn and proceeds to romantically torment him for the rest of his life, beginning with a little French kiss as they drink from a fountain in the mansion courtyard.

In two abbreviated scenes designed to sum up their teenage years, they share a dance lesson administered by Ms. Dinsmoor and a prom date on which Estella flashes Finn her panties before disappearing off to college the next day.

Finn (Hawke) then grows up and becomes a successful beatnik painter, thanks in part to a mysterious benefactor played by Robert De Niro. But he still spends much of his time mooning over Estella, who pops in every few years to manhandle his libido by posing nude for a portrait or announcing her engagement to a dreary trust fund socialite (Hank Azaria).

Finn is really the film's main character, but he's hard to get behind because he's such a sucker. I've fallen for girls like Estella before -- they're very appealing -- but after, say, 20 years, I think I would move on.

Finn doesn't, however, and neither does the movie. There is little electricity between the leads (despite both being talented actors) and the story lurches ahead in fits and starts, turning only on the execution of Estella's little game.

The script for this adaptation was written by Mitch Glazer, who successfully updated Dickens a few years ago when he turned "A Christmas Carol" into the Bill Murray comedy "Scrooged."

But this time out he and director Alfonso Cuaron ("The Little Princess") got caught in an endless loop of sensual music video sequences that have become a tiresome staple of Generation X romantic dramas.

Like a bachelor preparing a candlelight dinner, Cuaron puts all his effort into setting the mood, then serves up a banquet of microwaved leftovers. The double-espresso art direction and insipid soundtrack insist that this is sexy, romantic stuff, but "Great Expectations" is all empty calories.

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