Directed by Keith Gordon. Starring Nick Nolte, Sheryl Lee, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Kirsten Dunst, Arye Gross, Frankie Faison, David Strathairn. (1996, R, 113 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 6, 1996
Bing Crosby croons “White Christmas” while the camera scans the image of the blue-and-white Israeli flag: That's the viewer's initiation into the world of Mother Night, the new film rendition of the 1961 Kurt Vonnegut novel. Unfortunately, the movie fails to sustain such similarly ironic tones over the next couple of hours. Although the narrative is peppered with Vonnegut's skewed humor and twists in perception, these somehow become overshadowed by the movie's straight-ahead storytelling and narrative drive. “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be,” writes Vonnegut in the foreword to Mother Night, a warning later repeated aloud in the movie. For the story's lead character Howard J. Campbell, Jr. (Nolte), Vonnegut's advisory forms the crux of his dilemma. An American who was raised by his parents in Germany between the wars, Howard finds himself reluctant to leave the country in the late Thirties when most other Americans are getting out while the getting's good. Howard is a successful young playwright in love with the leading stage actress Helga North (Lee) and the blissful lovers believe wholly in the inviolability of their “nation of two.” One day, Howard is approached by a mysterious American (Goodman) about using his celebrated position in German society to spy for his homeland. Thus, Howard masquerades as a Nazi sympathizer and broadcasts weekly radio diatribes extolling fascist ideals and eviscerating American values and beliefs. Through a carefully inserted system of coughs, pauses, and stammers, Howard's broadcasts are also delivering covert information to unknown American operatives. As he was warned upon going into the endeavor, Howard's participation in the spy operation would be disowned by his American handlers. With Helga now dead, Howard moves to New York and lives quietly and undemonstrably for the next 15 years. Then, he strikes up a friendship with a neighbor (Arkin) and, out of nowhere, becomes the hero of a strange white supremacist group, and, stranger still, Helga returns from the presumed dead. The story of Howard's life poses classic Vonnegutian questions about good and evil: Can evil deeds serve good intentions and vice versa? Translating Vonnegut's skewed visions to the screen is assuredly a tall order; doing so successfully is even harder still. Director Keith Gordan (A Midnight Clear) and writer-producer Robert B. Weide (numerous television documentaries) have set their ambitions high. However, their film fails to ignite (and for reasons that may be beyond their control). Nolte's overall performance is modulated and full of subtleties, yet it's weakest during the early sections of the movie in which we are to believe this actor in his mid-fifties plays a character in his mid-thirties. The selection of Sheryl Lee to play Howard's captivating love is unfortunate, as her dramatic skills are unequal to the demands of playing a mesmerizing muse and her German-English accent is amateurish at best. Though disappointing, Mother Night is not without pleasures (high among these are the performances of Arkin, Goodman, and Henry Gibson as the voice of Adolph Eichmann, and the walk-on cameo of Vonnegut himself in a street scene); it just never finds a comfortable stride.