Here’s my dream summer movie team: Rosario Dawson, Michelle Rodriguez, and Kerry Washington. the script will be intelligent, whether a small-scale community/personal dilemma, where they show off their acting skills, or a self-knowing Charlie’s Angels-style snarkfest. Either way, my girls will demonstrate that innovation outperforms formula, and the world is a better place for it.
As I dream on, they’re working their way into the Hollywood boys club, and that means they spend the majority of their big screen time playing Girlfriends. And, as everyone knows, there are Girlfriends and there are Girlfriends. Washington, whose performances in Our Song, Lift, and Save the Last Dance so impressed everyone who saw those films, got stuck this year, in her first mainstream action flick, as Chris Rock’s Girlfriend. Not pretty, especially since his character obviously was so much more interested in getting with his CIA “mentor,” Anthony Hopkins. Rodriguez goes for the more overtly Independent Chick. She boxed in Karyn Kusama’s Girlfight (2000), swapped spit with none other than Vin Diesel in The Fast and the Furious, and, in Resident Evil, played the coolest “bitch” whom Milla Jovovich could have kissed, if only she (Rodriguez) hadn’t turned into a flesh-eating zombie. This summer, she’s playing something of an oblique Girlfriend, really the surfing coach and all-around-cleaner-upper for Kate Bosworth in Blue Crush.
The 23-year-old Dawson has ended up with the worst Girlfriend parts this year. This is too bad, because 1) she came to 2002 with loads of buzz, and 2) both these parts likely looked good on paper. Not long after Dawson played Ruby, the virginal object of Telly’s lust in Kids (1995), Spike Lee tapped her to play Jesus’ gimme-girlfriend in He Got Game (1998). From there, she played opposite Usher in Light It Up (1999) and opposite Rachael Leigh Cook in Josie and the Pussycats (2001): no matter how conniving or naïve her character, the performer was plainly bright and endearing.
And then she signed on to play the Girlfriend opposite two huge stars, Will Smith and Eddie Murphy. Men in Black II was actually the second choice, but, Smith’s schedule being tight, and Barry Sonnenfeld being an efficient director, MIBII was ready for release pronto, even with all its post-shoot FX tinkering. Still, her pizzeria waitress/alien queen Laura Vasquez is mostly unexceptional: even though J likes her a whole lot, it’s a buddy movie, and so she gets sent off into the heavens in a high-tech glowing space-bubble at film’s end. Ungainly, yes. But you ride with a franchise, you don’t disturb it. Dawson now has her name attached to a profitable summertime buster, but still, the aliens take up too much space in it.
MIBII made a quick box office killing over a couple of weekends, before being swallowed up by a succession of seasonal action pics. And lo, into the dog days skulks The Adventures of Pluto Nash. Here again, Dawson is shot into space, specifically, at the moon, circa 2087. As Dina, aspiring nightclub singer and designated Girlfriend for Pluto (Murphy), Dawson rocks a vintage hairdo and a formfitting spacesuit, looking appropriately uncomfortable and wholly game in both. She arrives at Club Pluto, the hero’s super-successful joint located in the moon area called “Little America,” looking to earn enough cash to get Back-Earth. He hires her to wait tables, and to exchange two lines of dialogue with the club manager, Miguel (Miguel A. Nuñez, Jr.), who disappears after one scene, never to be heard from again.
Everything’s downhill from here. On Dina’s first night, she’s sucked into a painfully ridiculous plot with gangsters demanding to buy Pluto’s joint for $10 million. Pluto won’t sell (shades of Harlem Nights). When Dina grabs a gun and starts shooting up a gang of killer-robot-thugs, she earns the gangsters’ ire. And so, she’s forced to go on the run with Pluto and his erstwhile sidekick, an out-of-date robot bodyguard named Bruno (Randy Quaid). Slow, stubborn, and variously stunted, Bruno grows jealous of Dina because Pluto appears to favor her over him. Are they buddies? Employer-employee? Master-servant? Perhaps their relationship cohered in an earlier version of Neil Cuthbert’s screenplay, but in the film — which looks like it’s been edited with a lawnmower — it’s hard to guess how.
Maybe there never were any connections. Maybe Pluto Nash was conceived as a bunch of pieces, scenes and characters, to be held together by the force of Murphy’s famous persona. This might have worked better when Murphy was all about sketch comedic brilliance (“O-tay!”), but these days, he’s pretty much PG-13ed out, not sturdy enough to hold any pieces together, let alone pieces so ravaged as the ones in this movie. Granted, it’s good to see him without pounds of latex or talking animals, but Murphy looks here like he’s got a bit of the Mike Meyers bug — bored when he’s acting with anyone but himself (which he gets to do at the end of this film, when he does, in fact, perk up).
That leaves his costars in a bit of a pickle. And there are a lot of them, each with a scene or two, then pooft, gone. Pluto’s gun-toting mama, Flura (Pam Grier), shoots at some thugs, then essentially disappears. Mentor Rowland (Peter Boyle) meets a grisly death. Joe Pantoliano is a hitman who pops up occasionally. Pluto’s buddy Frank (Jay Mohr) sets up the club ownership, then disappears until the end, when he serves little purpose. Dr. Mona Zimmer (Ileana Douglas) runs a body-reshaping clinic, offering to give Pluto a Mr. Universe look and Dina more booty.
Dawson has the good fortune — or not — of appearing in most every scene along with Murphy, smiling and shrugging and behaving as if she’s just enamored, a lot like she did in MIBII, actually. Surely, it’s good to see characters of color more or less comfortably inhabiting a movie-studio-imagined future; goodness knows, that’s a rare sight. But they need language and plot that makes sense, not just a chance to appear (four words: Homeboys in Outer Space).
You might catch a hint of metaphor in the sequence where Dina and Pluto flee Little America (unsurprisingly, a consumer culture hotbed, all neon and self-contained, under a dome that allows breathing). When they get to the moon’s Dark Side, where there’s no air or dome, they have to wear space suits, which run out of air. Oh no! Luckily, they’re rescued by a roaming smuggler/scavenger, Felix (Luis Guzmán), who happens to revere Pluto, a legendary former smuggler (Murphy being Mr. Family-Oriented Nice Guy, he’s not going to be breaking any laws). When Pluto offers him a wad of cash for saving their lives, Felix refuses the remuneration, grinning, “De nada.”
Indeed. The Adventures of Pluto Nash is a whole lot of nada. And when such a lot gets dumped to theaters, the reasons tend to get obscured. Rumors of problems for Pluto had been circulating for almost two years — filmed in 2000, its original 2001 release date was pushed back when a few preview screenings suggested viewers (including the irrepressible Harry Knowles) didn’t like it. Back to the drawing board it went, for re-shoots as well as re-edits. Eventually, it cost some $90 million, with a hefty chunk for advertising, and still, its timing is all off.
I’m still hoping. Washington. Dawson. Rodriguez.