The Austin Chronicle

The Dancer Upstairs

Rated R, 124 min. Directed by John Malkovich. Starring Javier Bardem, Laura Morante, Juan Diego Botto, Elvira Mínguez, Alexandra Lencastre, Oliver Cotton.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., May 16, 2003

Overtly political filmmaking wasn’t what I was expecting from John Malkovich’s directorial debut, but somehow his stamp is all over this vaguely Costa-Gavras-like pastiche, adapted from the novel by Nicholas Shakespeare. The great running gag in Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich was that everybody recognized the actor’s name but nobody could seem to recall the title of a film he had been in: "Malkovich? Wasn’t he in that jewel-thief movie?" Sorry, John, they’re not likely to recall the title of this one either, although PETA might, and that’s never a good thing. (Fair warning: Dead dogs strung up from lampposts are shown multiple times, and although they’re not real, they’re still very disturbing.) Set in the recent past in an unnamed South American city, The Dancer Upstairs is a character piece-cum-detective story wherein precious few of the characters are of any interest and the mystery is played out so slowly that it’s difficult not to try to find ways to pass the time in between the graphic terrorist bombings and wounded canines – I was hoping that Malkovich’s much-ballyhooed fashion line "Mrs. Mudd" might make an appearance, but it was hard to tell in all the gloom. Despite its over-artful, snaillike pacing and vague hash of politicized polemics, The Dancer Upstairs is nearly saved by Javier Bardem (Before Night Falls), who, with his hard, diamond-edged face that melts into something approximating a younger, more lovesick Raul Julia when the object of his affections enters the frame. Not quite, though. Bardem plays Augustin Rejas, once a lawyer, now a cop, assigned to root out the mysterious Ezequiel, a revolutionary employing brutal terrorist methods to incite the people to toss off the yoke of … something. It’s never quite clear what his motivations are, other than fancying himself as the new Mao and having a problem with dogs. Everywhere, children and women are pressed into service as walking bombs and, before you can say "John Ashcroft," martial law comes down with a thud and Rejas’ job is made that much more problematic. To add to his woes, his relationship with his wife is becoming increasingly strained, and he’s discovered that his daughter’s ballet teacher Yolanda (Morante) is far more appealing. With his trusty lieutenants beside him, Rejas searches for Camel cigarettes and eczema medication in various trash heaps, hoping to locate his wily quarry while all around him the city begins to collapse. Malkovich’s cast can’t be faulted here, nor can Alberto Iglesias’ lilting score or José Luis Alcaine’s lush cinematography. Instead, The Dancer Upstairs falters in small but important ways – the suspense, carefully ratcheted up throughout, just plain goes busto in the film’s final moments – while Malkovich stays resolutely behind the camera, a consummate professional who, this time, misses his mark by the merest of degrees.

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