More than ever, in movies, small is beautiful. The blockbusters keep spewing out their predictable fare of frenzied action, unbounded violence, and heaving nudity; their success is not to their credit, merely to the debit of dumbed-down audiences. That is where charming small films come in as rescuers: Enchanted April or Tea With Mussolini, A Walk on the Moon or the much tougher Dreamlife of Angels. Now comes My Life So Far, a notch or two below, but still delightful and heartily recommendable.
The film is based on a section of Son of Adam, the childhood memoir of Sir Denis Forman, television executive and Royal Opera bigwig. The very setting is a winner: the home of the Pettigrews, Kiloran House, at Loch Fyne in the Scottish Highlands. The house is a cheeky blend of medieval castle and Edwardian mansion; its attics harbor legendary demons; in the woods bordering its lawns, the Hairy Man is roaming. Missing only is a monster in the loch.
The story is chiefly that of ten-year-old Fraser and his eccentric inventor father, Edward, a veritable volcano of mostly useless inventions. But there are also Gamma (Granny) Macintosh, the matriarch and sometimes-benevolent tyrant; her ruthlessly acquisitive son, Uncle Morris to the six Pettigrew kids; and Moira, Edward's loving wife and a devoted mother.
My Life So Far begins further back, though -- when Fraser, still a toddler, escapes to the roof, crawling about blithely in mortal danger as the family rushes around below trying frantically to retrieve him. The scene establishes the movie's ability to sound two notes simultaneously: comedy and suspense. When Edward climbs onto the roof, he communicates with the preverbal Fraser in their cherished dog language: A droll barking duet helps return the tot to the fold.
Edward revels in splendid contradictions. He is stern and teddy-bearish, puritanical and permissive, dedicated and outrageous by turns. He lives amid a congeries of abandoned inventions, some finished, some not -- everything from a four-foot metal foghorn for communicating with the kitchen downstairs to a disastrous rubber wading outfit and a set of outlandish pyramidal speakers to enhance the gramophone. This last will be a battleground between him, a Beethoven fanatic, and Fraser, a zealous convert to jazz, which his father abominates.
Uncle Morris Macintosh can't wait to snatch Kiloran away from Edward Pettigrew, whose impracticality further emboldens his brother-in-law's greed. Besides, Morris has acquired a delicious French fiancée, Héloïse, for whom he considers the house just the right lagniappe. The young woman is a half-free spirit, flirting innocently with Edward and Fraser, both smitten, and Edward, at any rate, determines to do something about it. Occasionally dropping out of the sky is a happy-go-lucky French pilot, Gabriel Chenoux, who starts a dalliance with 16-year-old Elspeth, the eldest of the Pettigrew brood.
Two more remote presences also matter. Grandfather Macintosh, though dead, lives on in the illustrated sex books that, albeit hidden, fall into Fraser's hands; devoured but imperfectly digested, they will push the youngster into a number of resounding faux pas. And lurking in the not-too-distant future is World War II, in which Edward's most far-fetched brainstorm, a sphagnum-moss factory, will prove highly useful for its product's antibacterial and absorbent properties.
Add to the comic potential of all this some more serious elements: Moira's discovery of her husband's infatuation with Héloïse, leading to an ill-considered bet during a picturesque curling tournament on the frozen loch, where Gamma also comes to grief.
Simon Donald's screenplay hurtles along merrily and sometimes poignantly, but not without some bumps. The Gabriel-Elspeth relationship is stinted on; we do not get a sense of what draws the lively Héloïse to the unpleasant Morris; a vast array of minor characters parades on and off before we can get a proper fix on any of them. And there is one major casting error: As Héloïse, the likable Irène Jacob is not, despite her talent, the head-turner and heart-scorcher she is meant to be.
Otherwise, Hugh Hudson, best remembered for Chariots of Fire, has directed with delicacy and sparkle. His imaginative French cinematographer, Bernard Lutic, has done wonders for the Scottish scenery, or is it vice versa? Lutic is no slouch indoors either, where he exploits the contrast between bright frilly gowns and brooding walls and furniture. The dialogue veering from madcap to grave contributes its own chiaroscuro, although I could have done with a little less Beethoven on the soundtrack and more of Howard Blake's original music, even if Blake is not one of the three B's.
Colin Firth is first-rate as the loopy Edward, dexterously juggling the character's contradictions; Rosemary Harris admirably blends steeliness and humanity as Gamma; Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, as Moira, may be imperfectly Scottish, but is perfectly lovable. Malcolm McDowell is a wryly amusing Morris, and child actors don't come more poised and affecting, without lapsing into cuteness, than the 11-year-old tyro Robbie Norman as Fraser.
It has been some time since a film from Germany has made waves among audiences and reviewers; Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run has produced big billows. Yet, to my mind, the writer-director Tykwer suffers from an excess of originality and not much to vent it on.
Manni, a puny courier for a big gangster, loses a plastic bag with 100,000 marks in drug money on the Berlin subway, and a bum makes off with it. From a phone booth at the other end of town, he rings his girlfriend, Lola, in a panic: She must bring him a replacement sum to this out-of-the-way meeting place in 20 minutes, or else his life is forfeit.
From here on, everything and nothing happens. The same story is told several times, with some but not all particulars changed, and with a different ending. Lola keeps running most of the time, but the movie will turn her at times (literally) into a cartoon; at others, she bumps into or doesn't bump into certain passersby, is delayed buying cigarettes or not, has to dodge this or that bit of traffic -- or not. The sequences involving Lola and Manni are shot on 35 mm film; minor characters appear on synthetic-looking video. But when Lola runs through a video image, it too becomes film. Clocks observe the 20-minute time frame, but lengthy scenes, such as Lola trying to get money from her father's bank, clearly flout it. The father, by the way, is played by an actor scarcely older than Lola.
The music, by Tykwer and two others, is a crazy quilt, often defying the action. The camera can be as frisky as a puppy or as dogged as a Doberman unleashed. A typical statement from the director goes: "One really crazy aspect was all the clocks that keep coming into shots everywhere -- we spent hours discussing whether it was seven minutes or six in some scenes." If you have difficulty following that statement, try following a film in which there is no boundary between fantasy and reality, most likely because the latter doesn't exist. Why, even the concluding crawl is contrary, with words scrolled in the opposite direction from the one we are used to.
There is not much room for acting amid all this trickery, and I wouldn't blame the actors for not creating characters. The worst thing about all this often ingenious technique is that it dies with this movie: It cannot be applied to another, better film than Run Lola Run and retain its freshness. And, by the way, how could a courier, however dumb, leave a bag of money, on which his life depends, in the subway?