By now Pride and Prejudice qualifies as a repertory piece, a mettle-test for would-be Darcys and Elizabeth Bennets, little different from Romeo and Juliet. The team behind the current production of it, apart from their attempt to replace the titular conjunction with a dashing ampersand, earn no points for imagination or courage in finding their way to so trafficky a corner of the library. (Can no one, for a change, find his way to the shelf of Thomas Love Peacock? George Meredith?) It has been ten years and twenty-five years since British television most recently thumbed through the novel, but only a single year since its Bollywoodization in the biracial Bride and Prejudice, and the MGM treatment of over a half-century ago remains in the regular rotation on TCM. Thus the prospect of again sitting through the machinations of Jane Austen's mating game (match four from Column A to four from Column B) sounds quite tedious in advance. Nevertheless, the filmmakers have not failed to make it involving. Austen herself made it hard for them to fail, as long as they stuck close to the text. Joe Wright, a British TV director in his feature debut, certainly did more than his share to gum up the works, with an anemic, coarse-grained image and a lot of mushy telephoto camerawork: a pale substitute for the MGM sheen. Even the on-location shooting of stately mansions (a couple of centuries older now than they ought to be) has no advantage over the dollhouses of the studio backlot: this is, after all, a fairy tale, not a naturalistic slice of life. And Matthew MacFadyen makes a dull Darcy, a blank, more stuporous than brooding, a kind of waxwork Stan Laurel. Any doubts, however, as to the star potential of Keira Knightley -- and after the likes of Domino and The Jacket and King Arthur, how could there not have been doubts? -- are decisively routed. (It seems only yesterday she was catching my eye as the second banana in Bend It Like Beckham.) She may be too pretty for Elizabeth, she may be too young, but she is just sufficiently feisty, just sufficiently fiery, without being too and too. It's a tightrope she walks, and she keeps perfect balance. Two old pros, Brenda Blethyn and Judi Dench, bring solid support as two very dissimilar women, the high-strung Mrs. Bennet and the haughty Lady de Bourgh. Any well-bred young woman who can endure the one on a daily basis and stand up to the other in a moment of crisis must be made of stern stuff.
Bee Season, directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, of The Deep End, comes from another corner of the library, contemporary fiction, a novel I don't know by a writer I don't know, Myla Goldberg. From what's on screen, it's difficult to see how anyone could have thought there was a movie in it, even someone in the full flush of the spelling-bee documentary, Spellbound. Fictional spelling bees, about which we must speak intuitively rather than empirically, are bound to be low on suspense, and the ones here are so telegraphed that you always know what's going to happen before it happens. The principal speller is an Oakland sixth-grader (Flora Cross) whose eyes-closed technique permits her to "see" the word, often with the help of computer animation, the letters swirling around her head like a flock of tiny seagulls. Her father, a Judaic scholar, amounts to the type of fantasy figure for whom the female addicts of Lifetime movies would be willing to kill. He's Richard Gere, to begin with (designer eyeglasses, ermine coiffure); and he does all the cooking around the house; he plays the violin to his son's cello in after-dinner duets; and when the neglected daughter shows an unexpected aptitude for spelling, he volunteers to be her full-time coach ("I'm pretty good at this sort of thing, you know"), filling her head with occult lore about letters being a conduit to the ear of God. Despite all this, and to the hair-pulling exasperation of the Lifetime addict, no one in the family is happy with him, especially his wife, the exhaustingly tense Juliette Binoche, who lost her parents in a childhood car wreck, and who now goes off on mysterious errands, staying out till all hours of the night, breaking into anonymous houses for unknown reasons, having flashbacks to the fatal crash, and eventually serving to illustrate her husband's classroom lessons on "tikkun olam," the repair of the shattered. The newly neglected son (Max Minghella), in what could have been a rich source of humor, finds an alternative path to God's ear, that of the Hare Krishnas, lured there by a Veggie Barbie played by Kate Bosworth. (Neither the son nor the daughter appears to have a friend in the world.) The entire thing attains a degree of pretension that might have been amusing if it were not so boring.
Get Rich or Die Tryin' (THUMP-clap-THUMP-THUMP-clap) traces the slight transformation of a mere gangsta into a gangsta rapper. Notwithstanding the biographical parallels to the life of its star, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson (the internecine drug wars, the prison stint, the nine bullet wounds, etc.), it is lethally banal. The casting of Terrence Howard as the hero's right-hand man, in consequence, was probably ill-advised, in that (a) it reminds us that we went down a similar road as lately as Hustle and Flow over the summer, and (b) it reminds us what a professional actor can do. "50 Cent," only a two-bit actor, supplies an unarticulated, uninflected, unfelt narration, and his on-screen demeanor mirrors the guarded, the standoffish, the self-conscious public persona of a Mike Tyson, unconducive to intimacy. Irish-born director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father, The Boxer, and others) would seem, ahead of time, to lend the project what we might call "art cred," but outside of the robust photography of Declan Quinn and a near-death montage in the more mystical vein of In America, the cred doesn't survive inspection.