Costume Dramas 

The secret lives of superheroes in The Incredibles; gender confusion in Stage Beauty.

I can't remember the last time I was as ambivalent about a movie as I am about The Incredibles, the latest witty, well-made, box-office-busting animation feature from Pixar studios. I'm generally skeptical about the flat look of computer animation (the lovingly handmade Triplets of Belleville and the wavy, organic Waking Life are more my ideal), but the last Pixar product, Finding Nemo, was so smart and funny and adventurous and humane that I fell in love with it. As epic adventures go, it deserved to knock The Lord of the Rings off the Oscar stage.

The Incredibles is getting some Oscar talk too, but this feels more like a function of a film industry desperate to find a match of art and commerce to champion. Directed by Brad Bird, who helmed the acclaimed animated feature The Iron Giant, The Incredibles is a confidently staged and entertaining long-form cartoon, but it doesn't rise above its station like Finding Nemo or Triplets of Belleville.

The film focuses on a family of superheroes -- the barrel-chested Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) and his saucy, Southern-accented wife Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) along with their three kids --who once roamed the city saving kittens and nabbing thieves but have since been banished by a suddenly hostile society to the suburbs through the Superhero Protection Program, where they lead lives of quiet desperation. Until, of course, a new super-villain draws them back to their destiny.

The Incredibles is crammed with wit: The film opens with sepia-toned documentary-style interviews of the borderline arrogant heroes animatedly discussing their lives as crimefighters while an off-screen camera person struggles to keep them in-frame and in-focus. And the sequences dealing with how this family of superheroes tries to fit into a life of suburban normalcy are quite funny and inventive. Elastigirl, now simply Helen, uses her super-stretch arms not to round up bank robbers but her three unruly moppets. Most pleasing of all is a black-bobbed fashion designer (think Edith Head meets Louise Brooks) who answers the rarely asked comic-book question: Where do those colorful, skintight costumes come from? This character also steals the movie with a sharp little monologue on the occupational hazards of caped crusading.

But all this good stuff feels obscured by the big, noisy Michael Bay-esque action movie at the center. The Incredibles is vastly superior to all but a few of its live-action counterparts (and the only superior rivals are other superhero flicks, particularly the Spider-Man and X-Men franchises). But the negatives of the form -- the chaotic noisiness of crashes and explosions --are more regrettable for a cartoon movie aimed at kids. Instead of aping the live-action form, one wishes The Incredibles had provided more of an alternative.

This is the first Pixar film to get a PG rating and the rattling machine guns and intimations of violent death are entirely unnecessary for a kids' movie. I miss the more gentle wit of previous Pixar blockbusters such as Toy Story and especially Finding Nemo. There are other, more subtle, aftertastes here. The early vilification of both the French (a thick-accented, bomb-throwing baddie) and trial lawyers (whose opportunistic lawsuits send the superheroes underground) are too topical to be accidental. Equally reactionary is the film's seemingly uncomprehending endorsement of the "comedic black sidekick" stereotype (a jive-talking iceman named "Frozone" whose alter-ego is "Lucious" -- you keep waiting for him to exclaim "Dyno-mite!"). Finally, the "moral" about letting your kids embrace their individuality might have been refreshing in the conformist 1950s -- the decade which The Incredibles borrows from most for its sleek visual style -- but with parents now more likely to indulge their kids and with the communal good being privatized out of existence, it feels a little less righteous.

So, as much as I appreciated the best of The Incredibles, this might be where I hop off the train. Judging from the noisy NASCAR-esque preview for the next Pixar product, Cars, the studio is getting with the think-piece-approved program: Girlie men are out; macho men are back.

-- Chris Herrington

Ned Kynaston (BillY Crudup) is the toast of the 1660s London stage. Before there were actresses in England (they were illegal), there were men like Ned -- pretty young men trained from boyhood in the ways of female representation. (Back in ye good olde days, it was more seemly to have men dressed as women onstage than to have actual women. Go figure.) Ned is as famous as actors back then became, and like the similarly androgynous or otherwise ambiguous castrati of Italian opera tradition, actors who "played the girl parts" were desired by men and women alike. Ned's signature role: Desdemona, doomed damsel of Shakespeare's tragic Othello.

Ned's lovelorn female dresser, Maria (Claire Danes), is only clued into his sexual preference when the deed is being done in front of her, and Ned's fickle lover, George Villiers, the duke of Buckingham, is more allured by Ned than in love. Ned's Desdemona, Cleopatra, and other Shakespearean heroines beguile him more than anything Ned is as a man.

Things get shaken up a bit when King Charles II's mistress, Nell Gwynn (Zoe Tapper), decides she wants to try acting. Charles (Rupert Everett) proclaims that forever more, men will play men, and women will play women. Seems like an easy enough transition for Ned, right? Acting is acting, isn't it? Not quite.

See, in England back then -- and now -- acting was considered a craft, requiring years of training and instruction, unlike the more American tradition of anybody-with-a-look-can-do-it celebrity. This switch is like asking a tobacco farmer to plant a more health-conscious crop. It's different. Ned is, predictably, adrift. He's played women for years and, in fact, identifies himself as more of a woman than a man. Maria, however, who has been starring in a secret, underground tavern production of Othello herself, rockets to Ned's former place of superstardom merely by being the first "actress." To make matters worse, Ned is beaten savagely by the lackeys of a nobleman he once insulted, who later becomes Maria's patron. The duke leaves him. Battered and without his livelihood, Ned despairs.

Stage Beauty is based on Jeffrey Hatcher's play Compleat Female Stage Beauty, and I suspect that it works much better as a theatrical experience. At the very least, it might as a play avoid comparison with the superior Shakespeare in Love, which follows a similar plotline, shares in its study of gender as it relates to society and Shakespeare, and shares actors Rupert Everett as a historical icon and Tom Wilkinson as a fellow thespian.

The first third of the movie is very interesting, setting up the conflicts and showing obligatory slices of life, and the second third intrigues because it requires Ned to get off his laurels and try to make his life work. There is one fascinating scene as he auditions the role of Othello to prove to King Charles that he can act the man. Charles, incidentally, is in full drag for a court masque, and the scene -- not played for laughs -- shows just how fluid gender is. Charles can play a girl because he's the king, and it's fun. Ned can't play Othello to save his own life.

But the last third of the film fails because it tries to solve all of Ned's problems by merely requiring him to take a good stab at the role of the murderous Moor. The performance is straight out of 20th-century American naturalism and doesn't resemble at all what might have been seen on an English stage at that time. It also results in an implied heterosexuality for Ned that, truly, no role this side of Stanley Kowalski can bestow on any man. Chemistry between stars Danes and Crudup might have helped (although Crudup left seven-months preggers Mary-Louise Parker for Danes during filming of this). Brisk at an hour and 45 minutes, more time could have been spent on Stage Beauty's rushed ending.

If there is a thesis statement to this film, it might be "Clothes make the man." Or it might be "He's not gay; he just hasn't found the right girl yet." Stage Beauty would submit that both statements are true, and are, in fact, interchangeable: "He's not gay; he just hasn't found the right clothes yet." "A girl makes the man." Well, good luck to anyone who thinks any of those statements is ever true. -- Bo List

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