ROMANTIC COMEDY

Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore, Rob Schneider

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With Happy Gilmore receding into the past, Sandler has labored hard to prove that he's a real actor, to show that his crazy volatility can be shushed or amplified to dramatic effect. But Barrymore (see p. 86) is something else altogether. Since age 7, sobbing buckets for E.T., she has been an effortless, possibly great screen actress. Her range, true, hasn't been tested. She hasn't been hopscotching from one great director to another in search of meaty roles, à la Nicole Kidman. But then again she doesn't have Kidman's exhausting determination to stretch herself before our eyes, like a super-woman made of some miracle synthetic. What Barrymore does, from a Cinderella fantasy like 1998's Ever After to the sweet, dopey romance of The Wedding Singer (her first film with Sandler, from the same year) to even 2000's Charlie's Angels, is this: She hits emotional notes that are pure, simple and unforced. That sort of talent can almost literally light up the screen.

And she comes close to redeeming this not-very-good movie about an aquarium vet (Sandler) in love with a girl who can't retain any fresh memories since a car accident a year before. Sandler has to woo her every morning, because she'll have forgotten him overnight. Chunks of the film recall Bill Murray's Groundhog Day, only slopped up with gross humor (a projectile-vomiting walrus). But Barrymore has an earnest yearning that's touching. By the end, Dates is starting to jell into a more serious comedy about commitment in the face of killer obstacles. It's like Cold Mountain with walrus puke. (PG-13)

ROMANTIC COMEDY

Michael Pitt, Eva Green, Louis Garrel

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Bernardo Bertolucci's film, both an homage to the innovative movies of the '60s French New Wave and an intimate exploration of an incestuous menage à trois, is an intense but unstable mix of sumptuous eroticism and youthful nostalgia. The movie draws you in with a shadowy beauty—most of the story unfolds (and disrobes) in the dim confines of a vast Paris apartment—and this atmosphere deepens until the air is claustrophobic and damp, as if lingerie were drying on every radiator. But director Bertolucci, best known for the '73 kinkathon Last Tango in Paris, keeps yanking us out of this erotic dream with clips from classics like 1959's Breathless. It's New Wave channel surfing.

Pitt, who looks like Leonardo DiCaprio with collagen lips, plays an American new to Paris in 1968. He spends most of his time at the Cinémathèque, where cineasts devour films with an enthusiasm bordering on lust. There he befriends a brother and sister, Theo and Isabelle. He soon moves in with them and shares in decadent games involving sexual dares and movie trivia. The three young stars are all good—and bravely nude—but Green is best as enigmatic Isabelle: Exposing her body with a look that communicates either defiance or indifference, she recalls the fire-and-ice majesty of the greatest French actress of the '60s, Jeanne Moreau. (NC-17)

DRAMA

Annie Lennox and Fran Walsh

Annie Lennox (left) and Lord of the Rings coscreenwriter Fran Walsh (director Peter Jackson's longtime love) are enjoying their Golden Globe win and Oscar nod for the saga's haunting song "Into the West." But for both, writing it was bittersweet.

ON THE INSPIRATION LENNOX [whose mother died of cancer last year]: It's about making sense of life and learning to rise above difficulties. It touches everyone because it shows that we're strong and frail. WALSH [whose friend Cameron Duncan lost a battle with bone cancer at age 17 in November]: It's about having to say goodbye to people who leave too soon. It's about loss and making peace with passing. The song to me was quite personal.

ON WORKING TOGETHER LENNOX: Fran is the invisible force behind Lord of the Rings. I was a gust of fresh air. I was the good objective voice, but I took a backseat on writing. WALSH: We needed someone who had fantastic range, who could bring maturity to it, who could speak to the themes that were unfolding at the end of the movie. She has all of those things.

ON WHY AUDIENCES CONNECT TO THE SAGA LENNOX: There is something about this trilogy that is of historical import. I came away as if I went on a journey. As an adult you rarely do that.

WALSH: The themes are universal. They're about courage, friendship and faith—things which engage everybody. And Orlando Bloom and Viggo Mortensen probably have something to do with it.

Still catching up with this year's Oscar nominees? Four small-scale films—all richly deserving of their Academy recognition—recently joined contenders Seabiscuit, Pirates of the Caribbean and Whale Rider on DVD shelves.

Lost in Translation (Universal, $26.98)

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In this wondrous Best Picture contender, nominee Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson click as lost souls in Tokyo.

Extras: Murray's antics highlight a fascinating making-of documentary. (R)

Thirteen (Fox, $27.98)

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Holly Hunter was recognized for her moving turn as a mom witnessing her daughter's heartbreaking downward spiral.

Extras: Overly giggly commentary from the teen stars; stirring deleted scenes with Hunter. (R)

American Splendor (HBO, $27.95)

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This smart, funny biopic of comic-book author Harvey Pekar sadly nabbed only a screenplay nod.

Extras: An amusing Pekar-penned comic book; low-energy cast-and-crew commentary. (R)

Pieces of April (MGM, $25.98)

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As a sharp-witted dying mom, nominee Patricia Clarkson enriches this solid Thanksgiving comedy.

Extras: Disappointingly dry director commentary. (PG-13)

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Gliatto,
  • Liza Hamm,
  • Jason Lynch.