It's a crying shame that David Gordon Green's second film, All the Real Girls (Columbia/TriStar), didn't get a chance to shine in San Antonio when it made the rounds earlier this year. It has the kind of quiet gravitas that really benefits from being seen in a hushed movie theater, but at least its voyage to DVD has been quick enough to ride its good national reviews. The SA debut of another intimate film, The Station Agent, may benefit Real Girls' home video release, as both feature Patricia Clarkson - an actress who seems (after Far From Heaven and these two) finally to have achieved critical mass.
Clarkson isn't the star here; she plays the single mother of a guy who, after a teenagerdom's worth of cheap sex, is having his first experience with love. Paul lives in a rural North Carolina town boasting few jobs and fewer entertainments; everyone knows everyone, and in Paul's sense, that's "knows" in the Biblical sense. Enter Noel, the sister of Paul's best friend, who moves to town after being cloistered in a boarding school. She is a virgin, and Paul is ambushed by the idea that it will actually mean something if and when he sleeps with her. That he decides to wait is only the simplest sign that he's in capital-L Love.
All the Real Girls isn't about a love affair; it is one. Few films have been this effective at provoking in the viewer the sensations of love, as opposed to showing us someone else's relationship for our own vicarious pleasure. The result is tender and beautiful, but also draining; when trouble comes to Noel and Paul, it feels like the most ugly thing you can remember in your own love life. It doesn't go away easily, and it's likely to hang over your night like a cloud, provoking all manner of illusion-shattering soul-searching. If a "date movie" is meant to prod viewers along in the eggshell-stepping getting-to-know-you process, this is the opposite. Watch It Happened One Night with someone you love or would like to love; watch All the Real Girls by yourself. But watch it.
Unlike Patricia Clarkson, who is only now being recognized, there is nothing obscure about Sean Penn. But it's hard to watch one of his films - the new Mystic River, for instance - without being struck again at how good he is, and wanting to revisit some favorite roles. One of his itchiest performances recently arrived on DVD, in the De Palma/Pacino crime tragedy Carlito's Way (Universal). Here the frequently tough actor only thinks he's a tough guy, and his arrogance gets him - and Pacino's Carlito Brigante, who sincerely wants to leave crime behind - into an awful lot of trouble.
Penn's David Kleinfeld is a coked-up attorney who, having represented some of the underworld's scummiest felons, has convinced himself that he can get away with the same kind of behavior they do. Carlito tries to explain that you have to be born a hardass, you can't make yourself one, but Kleinfeld insists on burning bridges he shouldn't have crossed in the first place. Penn is so convincing that it's hard to mention this character and Mystic River's Jimmy Markum in the same breath; the latter is ice-cold and decisive, even when he's wrong, the former can't get in an elevator without warning sirens screaming in the viewer's mind.
Finally, the latest John Grisham potboiler Runaway Jury pairs Rachel Weisz and Dustin Hoffman for the second time this year. Their earlier effort, Confidence (Lions Gate), isn't a success in the storytelling department - it telegraphs its plot twists and makes the unforgivable mistake of casting Edward Burns as hard-boiled con-man - but it does give Hoffman one of the most entertaining showcases he has had in a long time.
Hoffman has been more than willing lately to let a good story outshine him; in Moonlight Mile, for instance, he is the model of restraint. But in Confidence, one feels that a production assistant whispered something in the actor's ear - "Hey, I've seen the dailies, and this flick's a dog; you should cut loose!" Suddenly, Hoffman's back in Ratso Rizzo mode: twitching, leering, and smacking his gum to beat the band. He radiates a weird, polymorphic sexual energy, flirting with Burns' Jake even though you're pretty sure he doesn't want to sleep with him. (Same goes for his interactions with Weisz, for that matter - his offhandedly sleazy gestures are more a power play than a come-on.) Hoffman's character has a completely generic part to play in the drama - he's called "The King," if that's any indication - and he's saddled with his share of grifter-movie clichés. But Hoffman is the guy who just about makes this stale tale watchable - and considering that the cast includes veteran scene stealer/savior Luis Guzmán, that's high praise. •