By Nicole McEwan
WHEN SHAKESPEARE wrote "Brevity is the soul of wit," he could scarcely have imagined Adam Abraham's mercifully short (80-minute) Man of the Century. Neither witty nor soulful, this tedious exercise in cleverness stars newcomer Gibson Frazier as "Johnny Twennies," a man who just wasn't made for these times.
Like a refugee from the classic screwball comedies of the 1930s, Johnny parades around in a battered fedora and a rumpled double-breasted suit, calls women "doll" and gangsters "bub," and is prone to use tragically unhip phrases like "in a pickle" and "you're the limit."
A "newspaper man," he smokes like a pre-tobacco-scandal chimney, hammers away on a beat-up Smith Corona, and wears his hair slicked back Clark Kent style. He's a chivalrous boyfriend, a conscientious employee, and a good citizen--the kind who sees someone being mugged and actually intervenes. Problem is, he lives in 1990s Manhattan, where these qualities render him a freak.
The film, written by Abraham and Frazier, attempts to put a new spin on the old "fish out of water" scenario--one of narrative filmmaking's most dependable workhorses. Unfortunately, Century's high-style ambitions aren't supported by a fully developed plot. The result is a one-trick-pony sort of film--the mediocre kind that Saturday Night Live turns out with amazing frequency.
The rest of the poorly thought-out film unspools like a series of loosely connected sketches in which other "normal" characters react to the oddball among them. Much of the alleged comedy is centered around Johnny's romantic foibles.
"I went into this thing with my eyes wide open, and now I'm seeing nothing but stars," says the irrepressible romantic to his "best girl," Samantha (played by Susan Egan).
He's pitching woo the only way he knows how, but the object of his affection, a jaded Soho gallery manager, is hardly impressed. Nor is she a fan of his chaste attitude toward sex. In fact, she's been trying to give the preachy stiff a romantic pink slip for days--but he's too damn chipper (and patently oblivious) to notice. Being a 1920s kinda guy living in a postmodern world apparently drains one's insight: he simply can't conceive of being dumped.
The thin plot involves Johnny trying to save his job (at the New York Sun-Telegram) by exposing the secret identity of an infamous gangster. Along the way he gets into some supposedly racy shenanigans with a couple of bumbling thugs. (A note to screenwriters: S&M has worn out its welcome in cinema. It is no longer shocking, daring, titillating, or even sexy--it's cliché.)
Occasionally everyone breaks into song, and one such instance, featuring Bobby Short, is the highlight of the picture--possibly because the legendary cabaret singer is old enough to know the era firsthand.
The lean and lanky Frazier is at least well cast. Interestingly, he plays the role straight, minus the ironic wink that such characters typically inspire. Unfortunately, his amplified moral earnestness makes Jimmy Stewart seem downright debauched--and it doesn't take long for Johnny to change from amusing to annoying.
The rule is simple: if you loved Woody Allen's Purple Rose of Cairo and Stanley Tucci's The Imposters, Century is for you. If not, viewing it may have you swearing off AMC and TCM for a year.
Ultimately, the biggest laugh for me came well after the credits rolled, when I imagined young filmmakers in the year 2050 trying to spoof the early 1990s, another hyperstylized period in American cinema. I just can't wait to see how they interpret Tarantino.
Man of the Century opens Friday, March 3, at the Rialto Cinemas Lakeside, 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. For more information, see Movie Times, page 48, or call 539-9770.
From the March 2-8, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
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