Paul Verhoeven continues to receive much-deserved accolades and SUVs full of cash. For -- again -- he's proven that he's not as dumb as we thought when he filmed those Joe Eszterhas scripts.
With his latest effort, Mr. Verhoeven (or "V", as we call him) matures as a filmmaker as he explores the theme of human sexuality. This is a subversive, shocking subject -- but an important one. The film industry, always on the cutting edge, has finally recognized and supported Verhoeven by providing him with expensive digital effects to recreate that most fleeting of phenomena -- the human body.
With each film, Verhoeven teaches us something. In Basic Instinct, he stunned audiences by revealing that sexual intercourse is often driven by ulterior motives. "What," viewers wondered, "is my girlfriend really thinking when I ask her to plump the ole Ballpark Frank?"
And despite the clumsiness of Showgirls, it jolted America into an awareness that one of those ulterior motives is money. "I thought the strippers down at Le Tetons Grandes just wanted to express their God-given freedom," said one man upon seeing the film. "Sure, their thongs get stuffed with bills, but I thought that was just ironic commentary on consumer culture. Like that one movie lady dressing in American Express cards. Boy, was I wrong!"
Now, only six years after the seminal Pulp Fiction, Verhoeven succeeds at the difficult art of interweaving multiple stories and timelines. Slowly the stories come together, exploding at last in multiple simultaneous impacts that make us realize we'd never before had an impact. We used to think we might have, but it was never like this. And after the final throb of ecstasy has faded, the movie leaves us with one hope: that Verhoeven can do it again. Soon.
The first sequence begins with a dark yet winsome tone. The air of mystery hangs heavy as the film's casting director chooses who will play Kevin Bacon. And, in the long line of hopefuls, stands bright-eyed ingénue Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It's a great comeback for Arnold, who we last saw wooing Kirstie Alley in the horribly misconceived Look Who's Talking Deutsche! After that he saved humanity from Satan on New Year's Eve, but the millennium was such a timeworn cliché by then that the only one who noticed was Ed McMahon.
At first Hollow Man keeps us in suspense about the casting. Arnold is seen trying out for the role of the leggy scientist/supermodel, and is bitterly disappointed when Michael Biehn beats him out for the part. Despondent, Arnold drives his Humvee over the director's Lexus. But when Arnold gets home, his answering machine is flashing! He impressed the producers enough to land the most coveted role -- that of Kevin Bacon.
But why have anyone play Kevin Bacon? The reasoning unfolds in the film's second timeline.
Arnold is impregnated in a sophisticated plan to make men fecund, and thus able to push the world's population past ten billion. Scientists hope the abundance of people will cure the deep loneliness at the heart of our technological age, as well as allow the Dow to break 100,000.
At first everything goes according to plan. Arnold does fine for the first seven trimesters. In the eighth trimester, however, the toddler demands independence. It grows quite fussy about wanting miniature bib overalls like all the cool two-year-olds have. Despite Arnold's firm affirmation that "Daddy doesn't swallow rugged clothing", the toddler bites his way out of Mr. Schwarzenegger's midsection.
Critics have focused on the movie's third and final timeline, which they call "visually arresting". This is actually a coded plot point. What the critics have been sworn never to reveal is that Bacon née Schwarzenegger is in fact visually arrested. Denounced for toddler-smuggling, the visual portion of Bacon/Schwarzenegger is arrested, sentenced to death, and imprisoned in the State of Texas. Governor Dubya forbids pardon, and the visual part of our hero goes to the gas chamber.
Bitter at the loss of his cordiness and visibly whiter teeth -- as well as of his inner child -- the audio/textural portion of our hero grows bitter. He locks himself into the leggy scientist's facility, which has electronic infrared imaging technology that allows anyone to see him a mile off, and tries to grope the interns.
Failing this, he tries to make a living as a magician. He shows up (so to speak) at children's birthday parties and makes Mommy's entire gin stock disappear.
Finally, Governor Dubya assigns Claude Rains to dispatch the remnants of our hero, in a tearful and wrenching mercy-killing.
The film's title works with elegant concurrence to draw all its themes together. Not only is the Bacon/Schwarzenegger character hollow in the real sense of having a large interior space to simulate a uterus. He's also hollow in the sense of having lost the human portion of himself. That is -- the part that allows the audience to see him on the screen and form a connection.
This is no mean feat for a male actor. It's easier for actresses to gain our sympathy by losing their bond with the audience -- simply by grafting plastic lips to their faces and dyeing their skin orange. That Paul Verhoeven pulled this off with a man is ringing testimony to his directorial mastery.
So -- get out there. Disprove all those snide mutterers who say that the movie's title wasn't The Invisible Man just so Jay Leno couldn't ask Elisabeth Shue "So, when people paid money to see The Invisible Man, did they ask for a refund? Because you can't really see an invisible man! Huh? Get it?"
Hollow Man -- in theaters everywhere.