Robert Downey Jr., Kevin Kline

Richard Attenborough, best known for directing the gargantuan movie biography Gandhi, manages to make absolutely no sense out of the life of Charlie Chaplin. For example, the movie devotes more time to showing how Chaplin slaved over the musical score to Modern Times than to the actual filming of the classic 1936 comedy. Downey, as Chaplin, noodles at the piano for days until his wife, actress Paulette Goddard (Diane Lane), stomps in and announces, "Well, the Fairbankses are getting divorced, and Mussolini has invaded Abyssinia!"

There's nothing Chaplinesque in Downey's courageous but not especially compelling performance. Downey at times looks strikingly like Chaplin, although he doesn't have the original's androgynous, rabbity prettiness. (With his large moist eyes, Downey suggests a Walter Keane portrait. Made up as the old Chaplin, he looks like Howard the Duck covered with talcum powder.) His British accent is good, and he does a few expert pratfalls. But the five minutes of genuine, breathtaking Chaplin footage that close the movie show how impossible Downey's task was. Kline, in his ironic-swashbuckler mode, is much more entertaining as Douglas Fairbanks.

Meanwhile the story goes racing through the Chaplin catalog of scandals. The rapid procession of young lovers and wives reduces a fleet of talented actresses—including Moira Kelly, as Oona O'Neill, and Penelope Ann Miller, as Edna Purviance—to walk-ons, mere Keystone Copettes. The best thing in Chaplin is Geraldine Chaplin, his own daughter, now 48, who has been cast as her grandmother Hannah, a music-hall performer abandoned by her husband and driven to madness by the pressure of raising Charlie and his half brother, Sydney, in the London slums. She plays the part with heartbreaking fragility but without any of the tear-tugging pathos that her father might have wanted if he had directed. (PG-13)

Bill Paxton, William Sadler, Ice-T, Ice Cube

It displays an ingenious premise and a lack of pretension, but this is basically an old-fashioned bad-guys-vs.-bad-guys gangster movie. The differences are that this film is more violent and obscene than those tommy-gun epics and that in the '30s and '40s even such third-string villains as Barton MacLane and Maxie Rosenbloom were competent actors. This cast is almost uniformly as inept as that of an eighth-grade holiday pageant.

Paxton and Sadler are Arkansas firefighters who find a treasure map and end up driving to East St. Louis, Ill., to dig up a cache of stolen gold objects in an abandoned building. At the building they encounter a gang of black thugs led by rapper Ice-T, and a derelict played by veteran character actor Art Evans. For something written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis—the creators Back to the Future—the script is singularly lacking in wit, the cleverness of sticking two white firemen in a black neighborhood having apparently exhausted the writers' originality. Paxton and Sadler's attempt to find the gold and then get away with it occupies the last half of the movie routinely. (R)

Robin Williams, Michael Gambon, Joan Cusack

This is unlike any film you've ever seen, a Dr. Strangelove meets Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Although the movie often misfires, it's heartening that something this bizarre can get made in Hollywood. Donald O'Connor plays a benevolent toy-factory owner who tries, from beyond the grave, to teach his son, Williams, some responsibility. O'Connor cedes control of the company to Williams's demented uncle, Gambon, thus forcing Williams to win back control. To do that, he must battle Gambon, an Army general who turns the factory into a war machine. Although this seems like a perfect role for Williams, he is too subdued. The movie is stolen by Gambon and Cusack, who plays Williams's wigged-out sister.

Everyone in the movie acts like a big kid, and adult moviegoers will have to have the open mind of a child to enjoy the film. Toys should come with a caveat: some assembly required. (PG-13)

Steve Martin, Debra Winger, Liam Neeson, Lukas Haas

Hallelujah, brethren! Here is a colorful, warm, funny movie about faith; it even has a hint of substance. Martin is marvelously energetic, playful and thoughtful as a semi-sincere evangelist-huckster whose gospel caravan gets stranded in a drought-stricken Kansas town that proclaims itself "the corn-relish capital of America."

Winger, characteristically dour, is Martin's road manager and conscience. She's no Jiminy, though. The movie would have been much more fun with her role played by someone with a greater sense of humor—Teri Garr, say, or Paula Poundstone.

Though director Richard Pearce lets things dissolve into a sappy ending drenched in sentimentality and implausibilities, Martin never lets up, maintaining his intensity and introspection. He is as convincingly charismatic as the Elmer Gantry-era Burt Lancaster, if less overtly sexy. Even in brief scenes that he might have just tossed off, he seems to be contemplating the morality of the con he is running on vulnerable people.

The movie may not leave you believing in evangelical Christianity, but it will leave you believing in Steve Martin. (PG-13)

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Gliatto,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Tom Cunneff.