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COMIC TRAGEDY

Before last week's Denver preview screening of A Simple Twist of Fate, theater employees handed out little packets of Kleenex to the audience. Cute studio promotion, no? Prepare yourself, the gesture said, for a real tearjerker, a rare opportunity to bawl your eyes out in the dark and go home marveling that old-fashioned emotion is not dead at the movies. Once in a while, they do still make 'em like they used to.

Guess again. By the time the credits rolled on Steve Martin's ill-advised vanity project, there still wasn't a wet eye in the house. Instead, you could hear a collective sigh of relief. In all likelihood, none of us would ever be subjected again to a "modern" retelling of that old English-class albatross Silas Marner.

...Now that the room has mostly emptied, here are a couple of details for the remaining masochists.

If there's any fascination at all in this grand folly, it lies in the spectacle of another talented comedian who thinks he must go straight to be taken seriously. Woody Allen's bad copies of Ingmar Bergman were the most flagrant miscalculations, but the "dramatic debuts" of comic actors from Charlie Chaplin to Walter Matthau rarely came off much better.

For his part, Martin is the executive producer, screenwriter and star of Twist, and it's pretty clear that no one told him what to do on the set. For one thing, he's reduced George Eliot's dense, complex Victorian novel about the restorative power of love to a mere custody battle. For another, Martin's plotting is clumsy, and his flat, banal dialogue is such a far cry from the linguistic precision of Eliot (Ms. Evans to you, pal) that not even the passage of 131 years and several generations of near-illiteracy can account for it.

Silas Marner is now Michael McCann, a furniture-maker in Virginia, not an English weaver. He hasn't been unjustly accused of theft, but cuckolded by his wife. That's a more modern trauma, right? But he's still a miser and a misanthrope, and that gives the eager Martin a chance to mope around his dark cottage with shoulders slumped, counting his gold coins every evening (while firing down a few neat shots of Stoli). This profoundly self-conscious display of "acting," despite its swaddle of sincerity, proves funnier than anything in The Jerk or L.A. Story.

Meanwhile, the foundling girl who mends poor Silas's--make that Michael's--heart arrives as in the original: She wanders in from the cold, her mother frozen in the snow. The novel's crass Cass brothers have been recast as the drunken rich boy Tanny Newland (Stephen Baldwin) and John Newland (Gabriel Byrne), a vaguely crooked politician with a childless marriage who eventually claims to be the foundling girl's actual (or, as they say in this century, biological) father. Six different girls play little Mathilda (no less odd a name than the original Eppie, wouldn't you say?), ending with Alana Austin, age eleven. She's from Utah, and like most precocious, half-sweet kids up there on the screen, she fails the customary moviegoer test: You keep hoping she'll slip off to McDonald's with her friends rather than inhabit the next scene.

There's no use chewing over Steve Martin's status motives--or the treacle you're subjected to here--at any greater length. And this is certainly no place to discuss George Eliot's brave quest for personal freedom amid the strictures of Victorian morality, or even the intellectual cross-dressing implicit in her nom de plume.

Suffice it to say that this ludicrous bomb serves neither the nineteenth-century novelist nor the twentieth-century comedian very well--and that junior-high-schoolers who've been force-fed the book will want nothing to do with the movie, either.

It's hard to blame them: A Simple Twist of Fate doesn't even provide those susceptible to such things with a good cry.

 
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