Boo Hoo

 

Ever since Quentin Tarantino came along, it’s been hard to predict what you’ll find playing at the art-house theater. Some of them don’t even play movies that feature foreign accents or frilly costumes! Let’s not even delve into the unspeakable horror of the movies that are set in … ugh! … America.

However, salvation is at hand. Behold The Man Who Cried, an “old-school” art film straight out of a how-to textbook: The movie delivers high culture (opera), actors with accents (Cate Blanchett doing Russian, Christina Ricci English and Johnny Depp a vague kind of generic European), a period setting (World War II), inoffensive social sentiment (Nazis and other prejudiced people are bad) and, of course, lots of costumes. All from Sally Potter, the director of Orlando and The Tango Lesson, no less. If this is what you like, have at it.

Now, how about that title? Women dreaming of a sensitive man are bound to be drawn by it, especially knowing that Johnny Depp is in the film. So perhaps it should be noted that, though Depp does shed tears once, the verb cry in this case primarily refers to using one’s singing voice.

The first man who cries is simply known as Father (Oleg Yankovskiy), a Russian Jew who sings to his young daughter Suzie (Claudia Lander Duke, who grows up to be Christina Ricci). When poverty grips their small, snowy village, Father heads to America to make some real money for his family. Then, when anti-Semitism causes the village to be burned down, Suzie escapes on a wagon and gets shipped off to England to live with a foster family that aggressively tries to make her assimilate, which she responds to by smashing the glass in every one of their picture frames. The only person who understands her is an authoritarian music teacher, who confides that “they wouldn’t let me speak Welsh either, but it did me a world of good.” Before long, Suzie is a teen with a great singing voice (courtesy of Iva Bittova) and an English accent, and is on her way to Paris to become a chorus girl, which she hopes is a step in the right direction — toward America.

In a case of mixed blessings, Suzie ends up rooming with the annoying Russian blabbermouth Lola (Blanchett). Her talent for flirting gets her hooked up with a bombastic Italian opera star, Dante Dominio (a wildly overacting John Turturro, with singing voice by Salvatore Licitra), who gets Lola and Suzie small parts in his current stage production, presided over by the eternally amenable Felix Perlman (Harry Dean Stanton). Rounding out the cast of the opera are some Gypsies and their horses. And wouldn’t you know it, one of the Gypsies just happens to be a sensuous hunk who teaches uptight heroine Suzie how to relax by having sex with her. It is, of course, Depp, who seems to have walked directly off the set of Chocolat, remaining in character and costume but ditching the Irish accent for a more continental one.

Dante, being the pompous and ignorant diva that he is, resents the Gypsies. He also likes Mussolini, comparing Blackshirt rallies to opera. So when the Nazis come marching into Paris, he immediately makes friends and rats out the truth about Suzie’s Russian-Jewish heritage. It’s time for Suzie to leave, but only if she can tear herself away from the smoldering Gypsy passion of Mr. Depp.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with this whole setup; it’s just very by-the-numbers. All the actors’ accents are fine, and although Depp is not very convincing (he seems to be on autopilot — that, or the only direction Potter gave him was “Look intense!”), the other actors are. The problem is that there’s no dramatic tension. Everything gets worked out too easily, and nothing unpredictable happens. It’s hard to worry about Suzie when she herself never seems worried. It’s also hard to hate the buffoonish villain Dante, since he never seems truly dangerous.

What matters most about The Man Who Cried is its genre. If you like period films in which actors do accents and learn to feel passion while evading Nazis, you’ll find this to be a perfectly competent piece of entertainment. If traditional artsy fare isn’t your thing, no need to bother.

Categories: Movies