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Humbert Humbug

[whitespace] Lolita Fifteen'll Get You Twenty: Dominique Swain stars in Adrian Lyne's bracing version of Nabokov's 'Lolita.'

'Lolita' is a brave but glum take on Nabokov

By Richard von Busack

ADRIAN LYNE is the archetypal director who graduated from TV commercials to feature films. When word came of his version of Lolita, some expected a commercial for pedophilia, but that is not the case. The rumor that Lolita was not good enough to be released to theaters (it showed on cable and is now getting limited big-screen showings) was a face-saving excuse invented by the various studios that passed on the film. (Worse than Nine 1/2 Weeks, Flashdance and Indecent Proposal? Yet all of these Lyne films were released, more's the pity.) Lolita, based on Vladimir Nabokov's novel, is set in the U.S. shortly after WWII. A European professor named Humbert Humbert encounters a nubile, underaged American girl named Dolores Haze, nicknamed Lolita, and ends up both lover and in loco parentis. Lolita, no one's idea (except Humbert's) of a pliable nymph, is wily enough to hold her own ground. Humbert eventually loses Lolita to a shadowy figure who pursues him across the country.

Stephen Schiff's sharp, faithful adaptation of the book complements the casting. Dominique Swain makes a clever, provocative Lolita, strongly resembling Carrie Fisher in her Lolita part in Shampoo. The reliable Jeremy Irons is Humbert. And Frank Langella's Quilty the mysterious is so well cast it's impossible to think of an improvement; this paunchy, sporty poltroon is a weird cross between Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal. Ennio Morricone's score is a dreamy variation on a theme from Once Upon a Time in the West. The locations are western U.S., rather than the English landscapes Stanley Kubrick tried to pass off as American in his version.

Yes, Lolita is easily Lyne's best work, thanks to the film's fidelity to a great novel, but it's not much fun. If you see it without reading the book, you'll think Lolita is a dusty classic that time has passed by. You know what you're up against when you see an early shot of a glossy steam engine puffing through the mist--the Merchant-Ivory Express.

Lyne tantalizes us with glimpses of Swain's quite postpubescent body and then hits us with the sermon afterward. It's an anti-sex sex movie, an approach that ties in with the sexual listlessness of most of Lyne's films. Though there's a lot of sex in Lyne's work, when was it very joyous? Lust is always tangled with power or money in his movies. Even the erstwhile comic kinkiness of Nine 1/2 Weeks was a power exchange: Mickey Rourke feeding his blindfolded lover Kim Basinger mystery foods, as if he were initiating her into a fraternity.

By zeroing in on the power struggle between Humbert and Lolita, Lyne has rephrased an extremely funny book as plain tragedy. The director identified the film noir elements in the book, but then pursued them singlemindedly. The locations avoid '50s exuberance in favor of Lyne's typical clinical blue-white lighting and clammy mist. Nabokov wrote of Lolita that he was advised by an editor to change his novel to a Gothic, with "gaunt, arid surroundings, all this set forth in short, strong, 'realistic' sentences ('He acts crazy. We all act crazy, I guess. I guess God acts crazy. Etc.')." Aridness and gauntness mark this Lolita, fattened with some juicy bits by Swain, Irons and Langella. Lyne's Lolita is a brave film, yes, but a glum one, badly missing the sophistication of Kubrick's 1962 version.

Lolita (R; 137 min.), directed by Adrian Lyne, screenplay by Stephen Schiff from the novel by Vladimir Nabokov, starring Jeremy Irons and Frank Langella.

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From the October 1-7, 1998 issue of Metro.

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