Hero: Stephen (Dangerous Liaisons) Frears’ First Hollywood Movie, Starring Dustin Goffman and Geena Davis

Stephen Frears may well be one of the few directors working today who has not made a bad film in his entire career. That is until Hero–his first, all-star cast, big-budget Hollywood movie.  It’s not that Frears has excelled only in making English movies on the order of My Beautiful Launderette and Prick Up Your Ears. Two years ago, he directed a great American movie, the Oscar-nominated The Grifters, starring Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening.

But Hero is such a mishmash of a movie that one suspects Frears wasn’t entirely in control.  By now, you may have heard of his heart attack during the shooting and his feuds with his star Dustin Hoffman. But I’m not sure either of these reasons can fully account for the unsuccessful blend of themes and styles that Hero represents.

Part of the problem is the screenplay, by David Webb Peoples, who recently did such a marvelous writing job for Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. The central idea is good, but Peoples has not built a clear and coherent narrative around it.

In a role similar to his Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy, Dustin Hoffman plays Bernie LaPlante, a petit-criminal, estranged from his wife, and not above stealing money from his own attorney. However, one rainy night, while driving to meet his loving adolescent son, he witnesses a plane crash. Against his better instincts, LaPlante finds himself going into the plane and rescuing its passengers, including Gale Gayley (Geena Davis), an ambitious anchorwoman always in search of a good story.

LaPlante somehow disappears from the scene, but Gayley’s TV network is desperate to find “the Angel of flight l04,” as laPlante is now labelled. A huge reward soon attracts a poseur by the name of John Bubber (Andy Garcia). The handsome and charming Bubber is such a natural media star that everybody buys into the idea that he is the real hero. Several complications are then introduced into the plot until it reaches its unsatisfactory and incongruous resolution.

In his previous achievements (among them, the 1987 Oscar-nominated Dangerous Liaisons), Frears has demonstrated that he is an intuitive director who excels in stories about marginal worlds, often populated by deviant personalities.  In Hero, however, Frears fails to achieve a crisp narrative or consistent mood and tonality. As a result, almost every scene is directed in a different style, going from slapstick to screwball to romantic comedy–with touches of social satire and sentimental melodrama thrown in.

Indeed, the movie makes the almost fatal mistake of sentimentalizing all three of its heroes. The filmmakers seem to forget that the last thing that viewers want to see, let alone believe, in this election year, is a humanistic and emotional TV personality–you almost long for Faye Dunnaway’s monsterish news executive of Network, a more powerful and funnier satire about the ruthlessness of the media that Sidney Lumet made back in l976.

Like most movies nowadays, Hero is inspired (to say the least) by classic Hollywood movies of the l930s and 1940s, especially the Ben Hecht-William Wellman comedy Nothing Sacred and Preston Sturges’ Hail the Conquering Hero, both of which concerned society’s need for–and obsession with–heroism, even if it is fake. In the l937 screwball Nothing Sacred, the great comedienne Carole Lombard played a fake heroine from small-town America who becomes a celebrity when she pretends to be dying of poisoning.

What ultimately saves Hero’s story from overfamiliarity are its moral ambiguity and twists. For those thinking Hero is just a rehash of old ideas, the story provides a nice turn in is suggestions that it’s the Garcia’s fake hero who is actually the nicer and modest man, whereas Hoffman’s “reluctant” hero is the scumbag.

It is not surprising that an incongruous movie will contain incoherent acting. Still, it is always a pleasure to watch Hoffman bite his teeth into a new role, even when his performance is overly technical and actorish–as in some of the scenes in this movie. By contrast, it’s the first time that I can recall the usually reliable Geena Davis giving a lukewarm performance. It’s probably not entirely Davis’s fault, but I got the impression that she was still searching for the focus of her character.

At the same time, Hero is not completely devoid of joy or pleasure. It’s the kind of movie that has the audience on its side even before the story begins. The three leading roles are played by such likable performers that you root for them–you want them to be really good–which explain the extent of disappointment when they are not.

Nonetheless, the filmmakers appear to have forgotten that it’s 1992 and that audiences now a days are quite cynical. Regrettably, Hero is a social satire without an edge, an existential comedy that aims high, but one whose barks never transform into real bites.

Unless you are Dustin Hoffman or Geena Davis’s fans, I have a suggestion for you: For half the price of admission of Hero (which soon will become available on video), you can rent both Nothing Sacred and Hail the Conquering Hero.