Picks and Pans Review: Henry & June

updated 10/22/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/22/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Maria de Medeiros, Fred Ward

Here is that nothing we're always hearing so much ado about. A short-term inspiration for the new NC-17 rating, the film is a somber, self-important re-creation of the relationships among American novelist Henry Miller, his aspiring-artist wife, June, and Anaïs Nin, the French writer who devoted much of her career to discovering the existence of sex, in the 1930s.

Directed by Philip (The Right Stuff) Kaufman, the film is indeed full of scenes of people gamboling about with few clothes on. Ward, as Miller, jumps in bed with Uma (Dangerous Liaisons) Thurman and de Medeiros (La Lectrice). Thurman and de Medeiros get cozy with each other and various passersby of all persuasions.

There's nothing explicit, though, and certainly nothing that any casual, mainstream moviegoer hasn't seen dozens of times in the last few years. The sex scenes also have such a passionless, studied quality that they seem more dreary than exciting.

While de Medeiros displays a mousy charm, Kaufman directs as if he is just learning about women's liberation. But what no doubt seemed like a big breakthrough to Nin 60 years ago seems matter-of-fact now; her gaping expression when she first sees women making love with each other suggests a Minnie Mouse-like, eeky revelation. It's cute but not all that profound.

Ward, whose very normality is his strength as an actor (see The Right Stuff or Miami Blues), is way out of his element as Miller. Ward's primary acting move here is a grunt he uses as an all-purpose response—like a guy pretending to answer his wife while watching the World Series. While he captures Miller's burpy, vulgarian side, he never reflects any inspiration or passion, the kind of divine madness Jack Nicholson might have lent to the part.

Meanwhile, Thurman, who is supposed to be such a femme fatale that Ward and de Medeiros stumble over each other to get to her, is lethargic. And while her overdone, hollow-eyed look may have been the hot-cha-cha thing in the early '30s, from a '90s perspective she looks like a badly made-up transvestite. The movie's best performance is by Richard (Mountains of the Moon) Grant as Nin's steadfast husband, Hugo. While the other characters try to work themselves up into something artsy—"He has someone who drives him to pain and chaos," de Medeiros says admiringly of Ward—Grant embodies a more substantial conflict.

He's a businessman who's tempted by the libertine life too, yet can also say, "Estate planning can be very creative." He's so loyal and sensible, in fact, you want to say to him. "What's a nice guy like you doing in a movie like this?" (NC-17)

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