Courtesy Photo
** stars 101 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, April 16, 1999
Directed by Philip Saville

Starring Christian Bale, Emily Watson, Lee Ross & Elsa Zylberstein

Christian Bale:
"Velvet Goldmine" (1998)
"Potrait of a Lady" (1996)

Emily Watson:
"The Boxer" (1997)
"Breaking the Waves" (1996)

Despite great performances, defense of suburbia a little too dull

By Rob Blackwelder

I was debating a friend a couple days ago who wondered aloud why no one makes movies about platonic friends.

I said, "Who would want to see a movie about a guy being told 'Let's be just friends'?"

A similar question could be posed regarding "Metroland": Who would want to see a movie about being complacent and content in suburbia?

Now, you minivan drivers, don't jump all over me -- I have nothing against the lifestyle. I just don't see the point of making a movie -- especially a movie as predictable as "Metroland" -- that directs so much of its energy into a strenuous defense of settling down, as if the director were on some kind of defensive crusade.

"Metroland" is about a happily married, dullfully employed young father (Christian Bale) who is visited by a free-wheeling, bohemian friend from his past (Lee Ross). In reaction to this so-called friend's resentful ribbing, he begins to question the decisions that led him from a youthful, sex-mad, boho life in 1960s Paris to where he finds himself now (the 1970s) -- with the wife (Emily Watson), the baby, the steady job, the mortgage and the Volvo station wagon.

Heavy on paint-by-numbers dialogue and inevitable confrontations with his wife and his insolent (read: insecure), arrogant, globe-trotting friend, the film improves considerably when, for a fat chunk in the middle, it rewinds to the '60s. There we meet a fresh, rebellious, younger Bale and trace his path from the Left Bank to the "bourgeois dormitory" of an outer-London bedroom community.

Directed by Philip Saville and adapted from Julian Barnes novel of the same name, "Metroland" boasts such seamless (yet subtle) production design that the picture doesn't just look like the 1960s and '70s, it takes on the auras of those eras. Even the cinematography matches the style of the day.

The movie's other major plus is its magnetic leads. Bale exudes the languor of the commuter life and delves into the complexity of his character's surfacing regrets about his diminished sense of adventure.

Watson, who in my book just about walks on water as an actress, makes her character unexpectedly enticing, even though she's a middle- of- the- road English girl with designs on traditional settling down. Watson convincingly spirits Bale's affection away from his more exotic, giddy, sexy French girlfriend (Elsa Zylberstein, a Jennifer Aniston type who is also pitch perfect in her role).

Ross is a bit of a weak link, but only because his character is so fundamentally unlikable that one can't help but wonder why Bale doesn't just recognize that they've grown into different people and say goodbye.

But one thing that can be said for all three of them: They all are just as convincing playing 20 years old as they are playing 30.

There is nothing inherently wrong with "Metroland" or its nesting-as-virtue message. In fact, it's quite refreshing to see a happy, functioning marriage at the center of a feature film.

Also, to be completely forthright I should tell you that there was a definite generation gap amongst the critics at the screening I attended: The Baby Boomers liked it, but the Gen Xers were bored.

I think you can guess which group I was in.


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