STUDIO: Vivendi
MSRP: $19.99
RATED: Unrated
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes
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The Pitch

“It’s like Shadow of the Vampire meets Gloomy Sunday!”

The Humans

Jonathan Pryce (lobotomized in Brazil), Catherine McCormack (executed in Braveheart), and Alfred Molina (done in by greed and booby traps in Raiders of the Lost Ark).

The Nutshell

In 1939, just a few short months before Hitler’s invasion of Poland, the cast and crew of a film adaptation of the opera Tosca have come together in fascist Italy to do their jobs. Producer Davide Rieti (Molina) tries to keep the production on track despite mounting resistance toward the multi-racial project and his own unfortunate Jewishness and homosexuality. Meanwhile, Tosca‘s stars — the English James Clavel (Pryce) and the German Kristina Baumgarten (McCormack) — can’t decide if they are at each other’s throats or going at each other like (admittedly chaste) rabbits. Will the production wrap before the world is plunged into war? And what are the consequences if it doesn’t?

“Ze consequences are dire!”

The Lowdown

The Moon and the Stars is not nearly as dour as its historical backdrop suggests. For one thing, it’s not hardly a character drama, which means that the privations and hardships felt by the individual characters aren’t made fully tangible, nor are they meant to be. The racial tensions, the political maneuvers, the manipulations both sexual and financial all serve a tight melodrama. They’re engines for plot, not beacons for sympathy. So, amid all that, director John Irvin keeps things light, frequently comedic, and at arm’s length from the audience’s emotions.

I can’t blame him for that. He has an ensemble cast, a huge swathe of historical contexts to incorporate, and a situation which, frankly, qualifies as a comedy. Though the parallels are few, I couldn’t help but think of Altman’s The Player as I watched The Moon and the Stars; for one, Irvin handles his palette of characters with a dexterity that recalls Altman, and for two the parade of crap which visits the production in Irvin’s film has a similar realistically ludicrous sensibility to the one that treads all over Tim Robbins in The Player.

Salute the Caramel?

The point, for the latter, is actually in TMATS favor here, I’d argue, almost solely because of Alfred Molina. Here’s a man who knows when pathos should connect with the audience and when it should earn their chuckling pity. The other roles don’t require such a careful balance, which puts Molina ahead of the pack, but no one delivers a sour note along the way. It’s just that, with Molina a slave to the business of film, all the shit earned and given by everyone else ends up rolling downhill toward him.

I was tempted to draw comparisons between TMATS and The Pianist for just that reason. Art is hard, in the best of times; art in the boil of international conflict is something approaching impossible. But, where a somber character study like Polanski’s idealizes art, TMATS does what any good Hollywood movie about Hollywood does: it gets all down and dirty with the cynicism, the passion, and the payoffs that attend the business of producing art.

Two out of three ain’t bad.

So, while everything seems to suggest that this movie uses the art of film as a lens through which to view the prelude to the second world war, that’s not at all what it delivers. And, personally, I’m grateful for that. This one is more about the dollars, the equipment, the egos, and the sacrifices that go into making a movie. It’s a giant rundown of a cost/benefit analysis where the costs keep stacking up and the benefits may or may not be stable. Almost every primary character gets confronted with a question about why they’re doing what they’re doing; and almost every one of them responds, initially, by saying: “Money.” Even when they’re joking, there’s a bit of truth behind the glib response.

That’s where the interest of the film really lies, for me. The heart is a jingling pulse of coins. It’s about business, and the terrible realization that businesses are composed of people. Fallible, zealous, indiscreet people. Divorced from its setting, it would have had a harder time creating the multiple tensions that threaten to cripple the production. As a result, the setting seems more one of convenience than of necessity.

I am American and deeply offended!

The Moon and the Stars isn’t a very good war movie, if that’s what you’re hoping for. Instead, it’s its own animal, a distinct thing: historical melodrama, steeped in a clear-eyed love of cinema, with humor and tragedy in balanced measures so the whole thing comes out just as delicately tuned as Molina’s performance.

The Package

There ain’t none. Well, OK, there’s a package, but there’s not much of a package in that package, if you know what I’m saying.

6 out of 10