1996, R, 118 min. Directed by Michael Hoffman. Starring Robert Downey, Sam O'Neill, Meg Ryan, Ian Mckellan, David Thewlis, Polly Walker, Hugh Grant.

REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Feb. 2, 1996

The redemption of the wayward man is a favorite theme in the popular arts; in countless books, plays, and films, the arc of the hero's experience must come full circle before he is saved. In Restoration -- its double-meaninged title is both a reflection of its tried-and-true story line and a description of its milieu, the period in 17th-century English history when Charles II reclaimed the government of England -- the wayward man in question is a young, talented, but disillusioned physician named Robert Merivel (Downey), who would rather swear by carnal and other physical pleasures than by the Hippocratic oath. As fortune -- or misfortune, depending how you look at it -- would have it, he finds himself in the lap of luxury when the King taps him to marry one of the court mistresses, on the promise that Merivel not fall in love with his new, beautiful wife. Of course, it should come as no surprise that Merivel cannot keep this unusual marriage vow, and he is soon banished to exile among the sick and the insane, to do the work he had started before becoming a royal fool. Slavishly following narrative traditions, Restoration is altogether too predictable, holding few surprises for its audience. As a result, it just seems to plod along -- there's no zip to it. (What a contrast to the manic delight of Hoffman's previous movie, the frenetic Soapdish.) Because there's little narrative tension, most of your attention is drawn to the elaborate but empty-feeling period costumes and set-pieces. (You know a movie is in trouble when you find yourself obsessed with how much a gown or a piece of furniture in a movie must have cost, rather than transfixed by the movie itself.) The welcome surprises here come in the form of the performances by Grant and Ryan in small roles. As the snippy royal portraitist who conspires to undo Merivel, Grant is hilarious -- and he doesn't hem and haw once, as he seems to have in past countless movies. Better yet, Ryan doesn't crinkle her nose at all in playing a disturbed Irishwoman who ultimately helps Merivel find his humanity again. The other members of the stellar cast, with the exception of the always fine McKellan, don't particularly shine, but that is most likely due to their less-than-three-dimensional roles. But even given what he has to work with, Downey seems subdued in the film's central role, as if he's out of his league when it comes to dramatically stretching as an actor. (Chaplin proved that isn't so.) Even when all decked out in foppish finery, looking absolutely ridiculous to the objective eye, he can't find a way to focus your attention on him. Instead, in looking at him, all you can do is wonder: How much did those duds cost?

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Restoration, Michael Hoffman, Robert Downey, Sam O'Neill, Meg Ryan, Ian Mckellan, David Thewlis, Polly Walker, Hugh Grant

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