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From one of the first scenes of director Stephen Frears' latest movie, you can tell that "Hero's portrayal of the media will be none-too-flattering.
Seconds after a rich executive (cameo appearance by Edward Hermann) hastily jumps to his death from atop a Chicago skyscraper, local TV news reporter Gale Gayley (Geena Davis), who has just conducted a pre-suicide interview, instinctively asks her cameraman:
"Did you get it?"
"Sports training, learn to follow the ball," her eager cameraman exults, having filmed the jump "in perfect focus, center frame."
"Hero" is anything but a subtle lampooning of a not-so-subtle profession and institution: TV journalism. The film capitalizes on the popular perception that journalists, who are heartless, award-and-ratings-hungry scavengers, will do everything to capture the attention of an all-too-easily moved and naive public. But, in executing this satire, "Hero" seems to parody itself. Its attack on the media and popular conceptions of heroes is not so much barbed as it is simplistic. The comedy is as formulaic as the TV news shows it seeks to spoof, relying on a backbone of sight gags and one-liners (read: sound bites) for laughs.
And like the local TV news broadcast, the movie, on a certain level, is nevertheless entertaining.
Cynical lines like the one from the one-dimensionally ruthless station manager (played by Chevy Chase in an uncredited appearance), discounting his reporter's sudden urge to report happy news abound: "She's pretending to be a person, but she's really a reporter," Chase explains.
And of course there are the cheesy lines for the "serious" scenes.
"You know this hero business--one of the things you learn as you grow older is that life gets very complicated, weird actually," the small-time crook with a selfless streak, Bernie LaPlante tells his son.
The film's hyperbolic send-ups of "on the scene" reporting and the talents we ascribe to our heroes are hilarious.
The injured Davis, having just been rescued from a burning plane, starts immediately reporting from her stretcher and continues to conduct interviews, arm in a sling and IV attached, with her fellow survivors at the hospital.
John Bubber (Andy Garcia)--the homeless man who rescued 54 passengers including newscaster Gayley--turns out to be an incredibly nice guy. His niceness is do magical that a comatose boy wakes up after Bubber visits him. The public and the media go wild. News reports of the "Angel of Flight 104" are always accompanied by the patriotic strains of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
Ultimately, though, hyperbolic scenes played by unoriginal characters fail to confront the film's "deep" themes--"what is hero?" and "how absurd and objective is the media, anyway?" Frears, who in the past brought us edged films "The Grifters," "Sid and Nancy," and "Dangerous Liaisons" seems to have sold out in his first glossy big-budget film. The film's ending is too neat and much too happy, and the performances that Frears has coaxed from his superstar cast-Dustin Hoffman, Geena Davis, and Andy Garcia-are just mediocre.
Like TV news anchors, they often seem to be just reading their lines.
As Bernie LaPlante, the small time crock who anonymously and impulsively rescues 54 passengers from a burning airplane, Hoffman seems to have melded his past movie roles into this one alternatively favoring the audience with his "spaz" act first culivated in Tootsie, and his catatonic one introduced in "The Graduate" and "Rain Man."
The usually fiery Andy Garcia is totally miscast. He looks the part of the fraudulent "perfect hero" John Bubber and does an adequate job of rendering Bubber's muted, too-too sincere personality, but you wish Garcia didn't have to have such a subdued role.
Davis seems to be on autopilot. Her scenes and lines are funny, but she's just not there.
Nevertheless, the three are such appealing actors that their less than stellar performances don't doom the movie.
If you can forget the flaws, or aren't such an anal movie critic, "Hero" well provide an evening of innocuously amusing entertainment. As Bernie LaPlante explains to a guilt-ridden John Bubber at the end of the film. It's just a matter of finding "the layer of bullshit" you're comfortable with.
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