Road to Ruin 

Why Valkyrie and Revolutionary Road are musts to avoid.

No, no. I've told you a thousand times. Tom Cruise as Hitler, not the man who tried to assassinate Hitler!"

"But he wants to play the other guy."

"So? He's crazy. Hitler's a better part, bigger, more to say, more conflicted."

"Tom would never consent to playing a monster like that."

"He played Jerry Maguire, didn't he? Come on, a sports agent? How about that studio boss in Tropic Thunder? Piece of work."

"He wouldn't touch Hitler."

"Why the hell not? Alec Guinness did it, and what's his name, the German guy ... Bruno Ganz. He was terrific."

"Makes no difference. Tom wants to play the anti-Nazi, the good German."

"Oh, I get it. Sort of a good-will gesture after that Scientology thing?"

"You might say that. I wouldn't say it, but you might."

"Uh-huh."

"And besides, it's Tom's movie. He exec-produced. He's the reason this tub of sauerkraut is getting made in the first place."

"I'm telling you right now, it'll die a death. No one cares about Nazis anymore, especially noble Nazis. Where'd he get that eye patch, anyway?"

"You forget, it's the holidays."

"Hmmm, yeah. I guess you're right. The holidays are Nazi time."

"Exactly."

"Might as well put all the explosions in the trailer, do lots of close-ups on Cruise's face — only without the damned eye patch — and pray really hard."

"That's the spirit. Have yourself a Nazi little Christmas."

At this time of year our hearts go out to the men and women whose job it is to conceive and market entertainments like Valkyrie, the new Tom Cruise movie. Cruise does indeed tackle the true-story role of Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, the renegade German Wehrmacht officer who planted a bomb next to Adolf Hitler and then tried to stage a putsch to overthrow Hitler's Nazi government in the late stages of World War II. The coup failed and all the conspirators were executed. There's a lesson there for all of us: Get the right tool for the job.

It's not that Cruise is wrong for the part. The part itself is wrong, badly written as a dull, one-dimensional procedural. As dreamed up by director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X Men) and writers Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander, Stauffenberg is a valiant, arguably non-political, career army officer (he lost his eye and the use of one arm in North Africa) who thinks Hitler is wrecking his country. He is joined in this belief by other German officers and officials, played by a team of British actors including Terence Stamp, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Eddie Izzard, Kenneth Branagh, et al. Where all these conscientious objectors were in 1933, when the Nazis first came to power, isn't discussed. Nor is much of the root of our man Claus' discontent with Hitler, other than that the Austrian former corporal has made a pudding of it and must be stopped. If there's one thing Cruise knows how to portray, it's robotic single-mindedness.

There's no suspense. We know the bomb didn't kill Hitler and that Stauffenberg was shot. And a Cruise-control hero carrying out a mission impossible is nothing new. Any number of previous pics about German anti-Nazis have been more compelling. Better to revisit Michael Verhoeven's The White Rose or Marc Rothemund's Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, two very good movies about Ms. Scholl, an actual young "good German" who objected to Hitler and also paid the price.

Or better yet, let's give the subject a rest for a year or two. By my count, Valkyrie is the seventh Nazi-WWII-Holocaust film to open here since the fall. They range from the pathetic (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) to the laborious (The Reader), and we're not even counting the Nazi interlude in The Spirit, with Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson in SS drag.

It's been claimed that studios float Holocaust films as shameless award bait, but that's hard to prove. It's enough to say that Nazis are, finally, passé. Hopelessly so. Even in naughty, nutsy documentaries such as Ari Libsker's Stalags: Holocaust and Pornography in Israel, a study of the unique Israeli genre of pulp fiction involving female concentration camp guards sexually assaulting male prisoners, which played the Jewish Film Festival last summer. Enough already.

While we're on the subject, that was a wonderful opening paragraph in David Denby's New Yorker review of Revolutionary Road. He starts by bemoaning "the Oscar-focused final three months of the year, which are devoted to movies about failure, abjection, death, and the Holocaust, most of them starring Kate Winslet or Cate Blanchett," then goes on to opine that the Sam Mendes-directed drama, starring Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, suffers from "the illusion that pain and art are the same thing." But he went a little too easy on the film. It's one of the worst films of the year by any yardstick.

Frank and April Wheeler, as written by Richard Yates in his hit 1962 novel, are emblematic of the restlessness that ostensibly gripped conformists in that long-ago era. They meet at a party, fall in love and marry hastily, then move to a home in the title suburban locale, where artsy April's dreams of a sabbatical in Paris take shape and where their troubles truly begin. Downtown office worker Frank wavers on the Paris thing. April grows contemptuous. Before you can say "Hideous! Kinky!", they're both engaging in extra-marital snish-snosh. It's fun, for about ten minutes, to watch 'em squirm. They made each other laugh at a party once and now they hate each other. These people are not tragic, they're not even pathetic — they're fountains of soap-opera profundities. Outdated pop-cultural walking clichés. We can see each and every one of Mendes' marionette strings.

Winslet and DiCaprio have never been more cardboard, not even as the doomed lovers of Titanic. But there's a redeeming facet to this gray-flannel nightmare. Chatty real estate agent Helen (Kathy Bates, well cast), comes to visit with her son John (Michael Shannon). Former electro-shock patient John understands exactly what's eating April and Frank and he's not shy about mentioning it. As flimsy as the Mendes-Justin Haythe-Yates screenplay is, Shannon's two speeches give it an entirely different spin for a few moments. Shannon (Bug, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Shotgun Stories) is one of the best actors in films today. Hold your nose and sit through Revolutionary Road just to see him. You can forget the rest.

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