Picks and Pans Review: The Man Without a Face

updated 08/30/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/30/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Mel Gibson, Nick Stahl, Margaret Whitton

Don't be scared off by the publicity photos showing a brooding Gibson, half his face a swirling blotch of scar tissue, looking like Freddy Krueger's more fortunate brother. Far from being a horror film, The Man Without a Face is a sweet and well-meaning movie that largely overcomes its hokey underpinnings.

Set in a Maine coastal vacation town during the summer of 1968, the movie tells the story of the friendship between a confused adolescent boy (Stahl) and a horribly scarred recluse (Gibson). The boy is trying to figure out who he is and not getting much help with it at home from his four-times-married mother (Whitton) or his two half sisters. He is intent on escaping to military school and talks Gibson, a former prep school teacher, into tutoring him for the entrance exam. (Face in many ways echoes This Boy's Life, the recent Robert De Niro-Leonardo DiCaprio film about another teenager who figured prep school was the answer to all his woes.) The boy and the man, both in desperate need of companionship, form a strong bond, finding solace and self-knowledge in each other's company.

If all this sounds treacly, it plays anything but, at least for the first two thirds of the movie. Gibson, as both an actor and a director, has managed to find much humor in the material. As a director, he gives his actors their moments without overindulging them, and his scenes are well-paced and shaped. As a performer, Gibson is all sardonic cool, underplaying most of his scenes as if to counterbalance the clotted heaps of fake scar tissue on his face. Stahl has a gooney cheekiness that's appealing, and Whitton manages to convey both the mother's self-absorbed thoughtlessness and her sincere love for her son. There are able supporting performances from Fay Masterson and Gaby Hoffmann (at 11, an accomplished scene-stealer, as she proved earlier this summer in Sleepless in Seattle) playing the boy's half sisters, and Richard Masur as the mother's pompous, academic suitor.

Unfortunately, Man loses its way in the final third as melodramatic overplolting and last-minute revelations, all hinted at before but ploddingly spelled out now, swamp the film's earlier delicate balance between sentiment and sanctimony. Despite the disappointing denouement, this one is worth catching. (PG-13)

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