Potter Gives it Her All, Like it or Not
Artistic nerve demands admiration, and writer/director Sally Potter shows plenty of it in her sweeping, globetrotting soap opera The Man Who Cried. Trouble is, she has gone overboard with this tortured, sometimes unintentionally hilarious saga of a young Russian-Jewish woman's search for her father on the brink of World War II. With a cast that's by turns woeful and brilliant, Potter blazes ahead with such confidence that audiences will find themselves pulled along--whether or not that's what they really want.
Suzie (Claudia Lander-Duke), a child in late-1920s Russia, is planning to follow her loving father to America. But after her village suffers a pogrom, she is whisked away to England for adoption and brought up by well-meaning but stiff-upper-lip types who demand that she forgets her Russian past. But she can't, and so the adult Suzie (Christina Ricci) begins searching for her father. She heads to America, via Paris, which she reaches with a musical company. Suzie shares her Paris digs with a fellow Russkie, the gold-digging showgirl Lola (Cate Blanchett), who is smitten with bombastic opera singer Dante (John Turturro). Dante, however, only loves himself, though he casts an occasional roguish glance Suzie's way. Suzie, meanwhile, is drawn to Gypsy horse trainer Cesar (Johnny Depp, fresh from a similar role in Chocolat), who takes his beautiful white stallion with him everywhere like a pet dog. (No one ever said Potter was subtle.) The war breaks in on these melodramas; the Nazis are soon pounding at the door, and Suzie finds out exactly who her friends are.
Potter established her sympathy for strong, independent female characters years ago in films like Orlando and The Tango Lesson, and it's clear that the spirited Suzie is meant to follow that tradition. And yet the filmmaker seems oddly unconvinced of her tale's ability to stand on its own merits. No one could question the very real drama of being Jewish in a country about to be occupied by the Nazis, but Potter unnecessarily cranks up the drama as high as she can. And she's utterly unaware that her talented actors are ludicrously (if at times fascinatingly) miscast.
For a moment, casting the moon-faced, petulant-mouthed Ricci as the stubborn Suzie seems a stroke of brilliance. Yet try as she might, Ricci never quite shakes her contemporary-wise-ass air. The other actors fare a bit better in their period roles. The ever-versatile Blanchett obligingly poses in classic film-goddess mode, while Turturro milks every ounce out of his hammy opera singer. Depp smolders as the sex object, though he looks foolish courting from horseback. But those accents! This is where the film provokes involuntary giggles. Ricci keeps misplacing her Russian accent, straining her already-thin credulity, while Turturro and Blanchett apparently patterned their dialects after Bullwinkle foes Boris and Natasha. And Depp needs to seriously consider playing an American very soon.
With its stylized shots and clashing musical forms (klezmer, opera, gypsy tunes), The Man Who Cried is a close cousin to that other frenzied period film of the season, Moulin Rouge. Perhaps it's too simple to declare, as critics have of Moulin, that one will either love or loathe The Man Who Cried. Because for all the bad accents, theatrical histrionics, and delusions of its own grandeur, there's something weirdly watchable about it.