By Alan Scherstuhl
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That distant pbbbtt! sound you hear is a collective Starbucks spit-take, courtesy of a thousand Academy voters watching their "for your consideration" screeners of Venus. In most regards, this funeral wreath of a film about a dying thespian in lust-struck twilight is made-to-order Oscar bait: a gift-wrapped vehicle for a screen legend, full of reverential nods to the craft, with reminders of the star's mortality delivered over loudspeakers from a running hearse. What keeps Venus from sinking ass-deep in Golden Pond is its sexual reverie -- and a star who couldn't play a cutely neutered grumpy old man if commanded by God.
Peter O'Toole has never been an actor to disappear into a part, any more than his blue-eyed devil Lawrence could blend into the sands of Arabia. Nor would you want him to: O'Toole was born to sweep a role around him like a matador's cape, transforming it by virtue of sheer heroic panache. Maurice, the protagonist of Venus, is a suit lovingly tailored to O'Toole's ravaged but commanding frame.
Maurice's command performances are done; he's shown on a TV soap playing the part most available to actors his age: a corpse. ("Typecast again!" cackles his estranged wife, played by a cheerily disheveled Vanessa Redgrave.) His life is a round of prostate exams and sitcom-like coffee dates with his crotchety fellow player Ian (Leslie Phillips). One day he enters Ian's apartment, where his friend's teenage relative, Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), has come to stay -- and something about the girl's insolent youth (and the careless peek of midriff between her sweater and jeans) sets Maurice's pulse racing.
The screenwriter, Hanif Kureishi, made his name with disruptive sex-as-weaponry comedies such as My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. His script for Venus appears early on to be riffing on Lolita, and where Humbert's gauche Lolita popped gum, Maurice's Venus sucks salt off her fingers from a packet of crisps while he watches, entranced. But Maurice can see his foolishness clearly, even fondly. It's a last hurrah. Acutely aware of his lost potency and waning health, he hasn't got a lust for life; he's got a lust for lust. "I can still take a theoretical interest," he tells Jessie, a Sporty Spice Eve who's first seen reaching for an apple -- and later, ominously, sporting a snake tattoo.
As Maurice negotiates little prizes of intimacy from the brusque, tarty girl -- the stroke of a hand, three kisses on a deliciously bare shoulder -- O'Toole manages a delicate balancing act, neither coming off as a perv nor erasing the character's frank sexual longing. Without Maurice's "theoretical" libido (and Kureishi's profane wit), Venus might've been a puddle of maudlin goo. Movies that trade heavily on our lifelong associations with a star can quickly become clammy exercises in celebrity genuflection. As delightful as it is to watch O'Toole summon echoes from his entire career -- his stage successes in Shakespeare, the sensualist's leer he uncurled in 1980's The Stunt Man, the matinee-idol braggadocio he wielded so irresistibly in 1982's My Favorite Year -- there's occasionally the sense of director Roger Michell tugging at our sleeves, gushing, "Isn't he wonderful?"
When Maurice and Ian duck into an abbey filled with the remains of their late colleagues -- Robert Shaw, Laurence Harvey, Richard Beckinsale -- it's almost impossible not to look at the haggard O'Toole, now 74, and worry about the time left in his company, even if you resent the movie making the point so insistently. And yet the star's own ragged glory rebuffs any impulse to send flowers. "Come on, old man!" Maurice growls, slapping himself in the face to rouse what spirit he has left.
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