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movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Lolita

Starring: Jeremy Irons, Dominique Swain
Director: Adrian Lyne
Rated: R
RunTime: 137 Minutes
Release Date: September 1998
Genres: Drama, Romance

*Also starring: Melanie Griffith, Frank Langella, Suzanne Shepherd, Marta Balletbo-Coll

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Monica Lewinsky was twenty-one when her affair with Bill Clinton began. By chronological age she's no Lolita, and what's more supporters of the president maintain that she is a manipulating seductress who plied her wiles successfully on Mr. Clinton--who should not be considered the ogre. Those who want the president impeached and removed from office maintain that he took advantage of someone half his age, a bimbo in thrall to his position as his country's premier alpha male.

The Lolita of novelist Vladimir Nabokov's creation, like Monica, is a seductress who had at least one lover before she threw herself on the considerably older man. Like our president, the professor did not need much encouragement to respond affirmatively. The difference is that the title character of Vladimir Nabokov's novel is jail bait, a twelve-year-old who is a half dozen years below the legal age for responsible consent.

Pederastry, even with willing partners, is illegal everywhere, considered a particularly heinous offense if the underage subject is horrified by his or her victimization. Pedophilia makes an intriguing topic for films. Studios have shown a general unwillingness to tackle the subject for fear of pickets, but now that "Lolita" has been shown on Cable TV without serious incident, we may get to see more studies of the phenomenon. Already writer-director Todd Solondz is soon to deliver "Happiness," about a WASPish dad who gains release from his demons by raping his son's schoolmates. Compared to child rape, Humbert Humbert's actions, borne out of genuine caring and passion for his young bedmate, is, well, kid stuff. Perhaps that's why some critics have already judged Adrian Lyne's take on the subject to be dull--even though this version sticks more closely to Nabokov's novel than Stanley Kubrick's 1962 adaptation which has James Mason in the role now inhabited by Jeremy Irons, Shelley Winters in the Melanie Griffith guise, with Frank Langella now substituting for Peter Sellers and Dominique Swain in for Sue Lyon. But dull it is not. This "Lolita" is a thoroughly entertaining piece eliciting much of the novel's comic look at Middle-American types and capturing a good deal of its lyric dialogue. If this version has weaknesses, they are in Lyne's apparent mistrust of audience sophistication. Lynn plays up the obvious and substitutes vulgar poses for more innocently suggestive fare. Chief among these flaws is Lolita's ribald mastication of a banana where sucking a lollipop would have been more appropriate and in the sexually suggestive preparation of an ice-cream soda (extra chocolate syrup) by a profoundly Middle-American type in a 1950's-style luncheonette.

The story, which takes place in the early 1950s, centers on the relationship of a shy but cosmopolitan man and a 12-year- old nymphet with whom he develops an overwhelming passion. When French literature professor Humbert Humbert (Jeremy Irons) arrives in a New England town for a teaching job, he runs into a sex-starved widow, Charlotte Haze (Melanie Griffith) whom he marries only to be close to her young daughter Lolita (Dominique Swain). When Charlotte comes upon her new husband's diary, one which poison pens her coupled with amorous scribblings about her daughter, she is determined to leave him but conveniently gets killed in an auto accident. Humbert takes Lolita out of the summer camp to which her mother sent her, only gradually informing the girl that her mother is dead. Meanwhile, the two lovers are off on an auto tour of the American hinterlands filled with the funny and sorrowful adventures of the immature but ecstatic Humbert and his precociously manipulating charge.

Lyne keeps Humbert in pajamas a good deal of the time, suggesting the sexual embraces rather than graphically depicting them. In one of the movie's funniest scenes, the maneuvering Lolita cons a raise in her allowance by seductively moving her hand across Humbert's clothed thigh: having succeeded in doubling her ration, she parlays her little victory into what is essentially trading sex for money, sealing her lover's doom by leaving him for a sinister playwright, Clare Quilty (Frank Langella), whose pedophilia extends far beyond Humbert's.

No person can fill the role of the hapless Humbert Humbert better than Jeremy Irons. The fifty-year-old British actor tends to be typecast as the shy, befuddled, brooding academic, in one instance winning Best Actor plaudits from the New York theater critics for his dual role in "Dead Ringers." His Humbert notably embodies the rise and fall of a man who has been traumatized by the death of his adolescent sweetheart, given new life by his passion for a nubile adolescent, and wholly corrupted by an obsession which was doomed from the start. Dominique Swain portrays her character's duality as both a refreshingly immature kid who can easily make friends with her peers in camp and a apt manipulator of an adult whose academic background gives him knowledge but not wisdom. The Nabokov story, which has been appropriately respected by scripter Stephen Schiff, is being released as a film at an opportune time when our country's leader is up to his neck in misery brought about by a similar obsession. If only these hapless Humberts looked for real wisdom to the ancient Greeks whose playrights and storytellers knew only too well the agony that can result from immoderate emotions.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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