The Leading Man
1996, NR, 96 min. Directed by John Duigan. Starring Jon Bon Jovi, Lambert Wilson, Anna Galiena, Thandie Newton, Barry Humphries, David Warner, Patricia Hodge.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 10, 1998
A backstage drama brimming with hothouse menace, The Leading Man by John Duigan (Flirting, Sirens) is a piercing little movie that nevertheless fails to fully deliver on all its incipient intrigue. As the story's “leading man,” rock star Jon Bon Jovi here continues his assured move into a middle-aged acting career (Moonlight and Valentino and the upcoming No Looking Back). He's well-cast as the American movie star, Robin Grange, who has come to England to work in the theatre (and, as implied by the circulating rumors, perhaps escape Hollywood's blackballing stain of having been discovered in bed with his producer's wife). Robin exudes the kind of smug sexual confidence that befits a man who (in a life-reflecting-art tribute to an action performed by one of his screen characters) is regularly asked to autograph his phone number on the taut inner thighs of his female fans. Robin now finds himself in the midst of a theatrical troupe beginning rehearsals on the new play by England's leading contemporary playwright Felix Webb (Wilson). Despite being a man whose livelihood and reputation is predicated on theatrical invention, Felix's personal life is the stuff of hackneyed melodrama. He's sexually involved with the troupe's ingenue Hilary (Newton -- Duigan's frequent leading lady), who has become exasperated with Felix's promises to eventually leave his wife and children. His wife, Elena (Galiena) is also fed up with his lies and his inattention to their home life. In no time at all, Robin manages to size up the situation (which Felix believed was a well-disguised secret) and makes the playwright a proposition: Robin will seduce Elena and thereby restore her confidence and keep her from dwelling on her husband's affair -- all for an unspecified favor to be repaid by Felix at some future date. The Leading Man is at its best when it's in its backbitingly funny All About Eve theatrical mode or during its more subtle domestic histrionics -- Elena snipping the coy forelock from her husband's head while he sleeps or the pained expression of the playwright while watching his ingenue kiss the leading man. However, the movie devotes so much attention to the details of the convoluted plot advancement, while steeping essential motivations in enough mystery that we never manage to believe that so many smart characters are capable of such dumb behavior. Nor do we come to understand why so many plot elements have been introduced only to be stripped of any ultimate significance. Still, the film's satisfactions are many: exquisitely observed little moments, a deliciously wry coda, and quietly etched performances of the entire cast, including the sturdy comic turns by the secondary players Barry Humphries (minus his Dame Edna drag), David Warner, Patricia Hodge, and Nicole Kidman in an unbilled cameo. The Leading Man is not quite the star attraction its name implies, but the film is nevertheless an engaging piece of entertainment.