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CLOUDS, FOLLOWED BY STEADY DRIVEL

With hearts full of hope, the people at 20th Century Fox are trumpeting A Walk in the Clouds as Keanu Reeves's debut as a romantic leading man--despite a resume that lists party animal, acrobat cop and ersatz Buddha as his most notable movie accomplishments. Predictably, neither the clatter of press agentry nor this overblown soap opera can turn the minimally talented Reeves into the next Clark Gable. Gotten up in a World War II Army uniform, he looks like a bellhop. When he opens his mouth to impart some gem of wisdom (sample: "I believe there's a perfect someone for everyone"), he sounds like a beach boy. And when, bathed in glamorous moonlight, he gazes at the bedroom window of his beloved, he's got all the dramatic presence of, say, Kato Kaelin.

But Keanu is only one of the troubles in this gooey mess of a movie. It also signals the decline and fall--for the time being--of the gifted Mexican director Alfonso Arau. His surprise art-house hit, Like Water for Chocolate, adapted from Laura Esquivel's captivating novel, drew huge international audiences for nearly two years, and that turned heads in Hollywood. A predictable war for Arau's services broke out, and the gringo hucksters have evidently gotten to him big time. The charm, intelligence and sensual mystery that characterized Chocolate are here swamped by garish production values, a dimwitted screenplay and a Maurice Jarre score that might force you out to the lobby in search of an insulin shot.

The Zucker brothers, whose usual specialty is unfettered farce, are listed as co-producers, but you'll examine this awful thing in vain for a put-on or a yuk--apart from the unintended laughter in the audience, of course.

The gruesome details: It's 1945. Handsome young soldier Paul Sutton (Reeves) returns from the Pacific theater to a slatternly wife (Debra Messing) who never even read his letters and doesn't understand the postwar him at all. "Betty, I don't wanna go back to selling chocolate," he tells her. Let's credit screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen with an inside joke, but the trashy script goes downhill fast from there.

As luck would have it (luck always has it in romances like this), our sensitive hero sets out from San Francisco with his sample case and, before you can say "almond cluster," has a chance encounter with a beautiful Mexican-American named Victoria Aragon (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon). While pursuing a master's in English literature, she's also found time to get pregnant by one of her professors, who's deserted her. Now Victoria's going home to the family vineyard in Napa, where she fully expects her traditionalist hothead of a father to kill her.

But Arau has another ninety minutes of screen time to fill, so young Paul volunteers to save the day by posing as Victoria's husband. Care to venture a guess about the subsequent course of their relationship?

Arau's model is Alessandro Blasetti's unassuming little comedy Four Steps in the Clouds, which was made in 1942 and helped lay the foundation for Italian neorealism. But there's nothing unassuming, little or comic about A Walk in the Clouds. For one thing, Arau lays his trademark "magical realism" on in such outsized, Hollywoodian gobs that we're never sure if the Aragon family vineyard is Oz or Shangri-la, but it sure don't look like no farm. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki seems to have shot everything through a bottle of honey--the huge autumn moon, the swaying vines heavy with fruit, the terminally charming hacienda. On this heavenly chunk of real estate, furthermore, a quartet of warbling mariachis is forever materializing at the slightest provocation, the kitchen is stuffed with smiling, cooing old women, and the annual grape harvest, which just happens to arrive the night Paul stays over, is a sacred ritual on the order of the Second Coming.

Everything looks so artificial and idealized in a neo-Tara kind of way that you expect poor Keanu to lean on a wall and have the whole set come tumbling down.

Meanwhile, the place is lousy with comic-book Mexicans. The domineering father, who is portrayed, for some reason, by the Italian actor Giancarlo Giannini, flies into predictably vengeful rages, while Anthony Quinn is busy recycling his Zorba the Greek act for the umpteenth time. While the aristocratic dad at first has no use for his daughter's mystery "husband," Quinn's wise old Don Pedro fairly smothers him in pithy aphorisms and vintage brandy. Naturally, good old Paul is completely snowed by the whole scene. After all, he's not only plagued by a complete set of battlefield nightmares, he's also an orphan, don't you know. So the charade he puts on with the beautiful Victoria inadvertently gives him The Only Family He Has Ever Known. And what a family--they came from Spain 400 years ago, and they are proud of it, make no mistake.

The melodramatic sap flows as freely as the wine here, over the usual tangle of "the-vines-are-our-roots" symbolism, lots of romantic ups and downs for the play-acting lovers (who soon edge into the real thing, of course) and a raging midnight vineyard fire you know is coming an hour before it happens. Clearly, this sequence is meant to rival the storied burning of Atlanta, but, as we said, Reeves is no Gable, and this is no Gone With the Wind. Rather, it is a clear demonstration of what happens when the vulgarians get their hooks into a decent moviemaker and start to tear up what's best in him.

If Arau has any sense, maybe he will go back to selling things like Chocolate, even if the leading man in his grandiose new movie has bigger, if not better, things in mind.

 
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