Jodie Foster, Liam Neeson, Natasha Richardson

Foster displays one bit of star vanity: Her teeth are perfect—radiantly clean—and more than a little distracting, considering that they belong in the mouth of an impoverished backwoods woman raised in such profound seclusion she speaks what at first sounds like a wholly original language. Other than that, Foster's performance is, as usual, admirably disciplined, developed with a sureness and care that—combined with the soft chirpings of the vocabulary devised by writers William Nicholson and Mark Handley—creates an effect that is almost musical.

Reluctantly, though, one concludes that this is essentially a lot of mock Esperanto, signifying nothing. Reluctantly, because (1) Michael Apted's direction is blessedly quiet ("The cinematic world has gotten so noisy," sighed the genteel reviewer); (2) the production is handsome, filling the screen with rolling, leafy hills; (3) real-life husband and wife Neeson and Richardson as, respectively, a physician and a psychologist who help Nell, have a kissing scene in which their chemistry is potent; and (4) Nell unveils her tragic past with touches of true, mournful poetry. But what good are taste, tact and strong, white teeth when the movie doesn't have the decency to treat Nell as a human being? Despite Foster's solid work, this woman is essentially a conceit, closer to the mythical noble savage than any real wild child. All who come in contact with Nell are touched by her innocence and mesmerized by the way her lean, angular body dances through the woods. Richardson learns to cry freely over a childhood trauma, and a sheriff's wife is cured of depression. Lovely, lovely—but who pays for Nell's food? Wouldn't a woman of such obvious sensitivity and fundamental intelligence blossom even more fully if she were taught to read? And how does she deal with her sexual feelings? This movie is like The Miracle Worker staged by mountebanks. (PG-13)"

Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Wuhl, Lolita Davidovich

A curiously gripping amalgam of Patton, Citizen Kane and Melvin and Howard, this movie is not really about its titular subject, baseball great Ty Cobb. Nor is it in any sense a baseball movie. The focus instead is the symbiotic relationship that developed in the early 1960s between Cobb (Jones) and sportswriter-ghostwriter Al Stump (Wuhl) while they were working on Cobb's autobiography, My Life in Baseball.

Cobb, still often called the greatest baseball player ever even though he flourished more than 60 years ago (from 1905 to 1928, with the Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Athletics), was also a violent, arrogant, abusive, vulgar, manipulative, bigoted, pretentious tyrant. By the time he got together with Stump, he was a sick old tyrant, afflicted with, among other things, cancer, heart disease, diabetes and impotence.

Writer-director Ron Shelton (White Men Can't Jump) shapes the story as a kind of mystery leading to a twist on the oft-told tale that Cobb saw his mother fatally shoot his father after she had mistaken him for a burglar. Although the real Stump served as a technical adviser on the film, he allowed Shelton and Wuhl to portray him as a gullible nerd. Cobb is written as a caricatured Southerner, as glibly irascible and surrealistically loudmouthed as Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman.

Jones's acting doesn't need much broadening these days, but he fits his performance into Shelton's bombastic script; there's scarcely a hint of subtlety. He does, though, effectively suggest some of the anguish the great athlete must have felt as his panther's body deteriorated underneath him.

Wuhl does his standard, affable job, while Davidovich has only a few minutes as a Reno cigarette girl with whom both Jones and Wuhl become briefly smitten. The only real athlete in the film is Boston Red Sox star Roger Clemens, who plays a pitcher in one of the few live-action scenes (Shelton does show the real Cobb in old black-and-white footage).

Shelton's script is on the prosaic side. He borrows his best line, without attribution, from old slugger Lefty O'Doul, attributing to Cobb himself the punch line of a famous anecdote in which a student asked O'Doul, in the 1960s, how well Cobb would hit against modern pitchers. ("Maybe .340," O'Doul said, and when the student wondered why Cobb would hit that low, O'Doul added, "You have to remember: the man is 72 years old.") Still, Cobb remains a fascinating personality who, as Stump's sometime colleague Ed Linn once said of Ted Williams, was "sometimes unbearable but never dull." (R)

Irene Jacob, Jean-Louis Trintignant

This is the concluding film in director Krzysztof Kieslowski's thematic trilogy inspired by the French national motto. Blue concerned liberty, White equality, and this one's subject is fraternity. I haven't seen the other two, but Red, filmed in Geneva, is a weird little charmer—winsomely metaphysical, if such a thing is possible. Jacob, a model whose image is about to appear on a billboard advertising chewing gum, hits a German shepherd with her car. The dog belongs to a sad, reclusive old judge (Trintignant, looking startlingly like Van Morrison) who mulls over life and love. The omniscient-seeming Trintignant, Jacob learns, eavesdrops on his neighbors with a huge ham-radio kit. She's tempted to squeal but, fascinated by his wise if crabby observations, doesn't.

The movie, which in America would be a romantic comedy about paralegal Julia Roberts thawing out retired Supreme Court Justice Clint Eastwood, has something to do with souls making and missing connections—specifically, Jacob and Trintignant, and Jacob and her neighbor, a romantically frustrated recent law-school graduate who may even be a younger incarnation of the judge. What's undeniable—and what ultimately makes the movie a pleasure—is that Trintignant is terrific and that he and Jacob, who boasts the sexiest jawline on the planet, make a beautiful couple. They should be put on an island and allowed to breed their own exquisite race of philosophically pained children. (R)

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Gliatto,
  • Ralph Novak.