Earnest Acting Can't Save Two Lackluster `Biopics'

MOVIE biographies, known as ``biopics in the trade, are a tricky business. Many is the real-life figure whose undramatic experiences become compelling when embellished by studio experts. Equally numerous are the people whose fascinating careers become painfully dull when filmmakers miss the point or view things from the wrong perspective.

Be this as it may, the biopic genre keeps plugging away no matter how fashions change over the years. The latest examples, ``Cobb'' and ``Tom & Viv,'' focus on subjects who have little in common except their freshly acquired status as the centerpieces of mediocre new movies.

The producers of ``Cobb'' had the good sense to fill their leading role with Tommy Lee Jones, an appealing actor whose success in ``The Fugitive'' has sent his star-power skyrocketing. He plays

Ty Cobb, a legendary athlete if ever there was one - setting records for career runs scored (2,245) and lifetime batting average (.367) that endure to this day, 66 years since he retired.

Cobb's accomplishments on the ball field would make for an absorbing documentary, but it's the passions and pitfalls of his private life that dominate Ron Shelton's melodramatic film. In his later years, according to the movie, Cobb became obsessed with documenting his former greatness in a self-serving autobiography, and he drafted sports reporter Al Stump to write the book for him. Shelton's screenplay probes the strained relationship between this odd couple - one an irascible celebrity, the other an earnest professional - and uses it to spark flashbacks that explore Cobb's history in sometimes grim detail.

``Cobb'' would be a more persuasive picture if the filmmakers had a clearer idea of their intentions. The early scenes treat Cobb as a larger-than-life curmudgeon so explosively self-absorbed that he's almost a comical figure, overflowing with infantile demands and brandishing an ever-present pistol as readily as he shoots off his hyperactive mouth. Yet many of his excesses are the opposite of funny - bouts of misogyny, racism, and anti-Semitism are among them - and while Shelton's screenplay clearly doesn't approve of these evils, it has trouble reconciling them with its portrait of Cobb as a troublesome but picturesque old clown.

The film eventually takes on a seriousness appropriate to the issues it dredges up, increasing its dramatic power, especially when Cobb belatedly faces the abuses buried in his past. But this happens perilously late in the game, making us wonder why Shelton and company took so long to find the tone their story should have had all along.

Jones tackles the title role with his usual energy, but as his similarly overheated work in ``Natural Born Killers'' should have taught him, sheer forcefulness is no match for a bad script. It's hard to watch his exertions without remembering Paul Newman in ``Blaze,'' another Shelton picture that confronted a good actor with impossible demands.

Robert Wuhl plays Stump with more sincerity than imagination, and Lolita Davidovich makes a brief appearance as an object of Cobb's lustful attentions. In all, this is the weakest of Shelton's sports-minded movies, making ``Bull Durham'' and ``White Men Can't Jump'' seem clever.

The title characters of ``Tom & Viv'' are poet T. S. Eliot and his first wife, Vivienne, an ill-starred couple whose marriage was destroyed by numerous factors, including Vivienne's chronic illness and what appears to have been an outrageous shortage of compassion on her husband's part. The movie chronicles their troubled life, climaxing with Eliot's acquiescence in a plan to institutionalize his spouse and write her out of his life.

As a lifelong admirer of Eliot's inexhaustibly brilliant poetry, I looked forward to seeing ``Tom & Viv'' at the Montreal World Film Festival, where it recently had its North American premiere.

The trouble with the movie is that it's not about T.S. Eliot the poet, but rather T.S. Eliot the husband, and this turns out to be a sadly uninteresting topic as the writer trudges predictably to fame while grappling with occasional fits of conscience. Vivienne is a far more engaging figure, but she's pushed into a second-banana position that's as unfair to her memory as Eliot's callousness was to her life.

Willem Dafoe and Natasha Richardson play the central roles as skillfully as one would expect, but they can't surmount the built-in deficiencies of the screenplay by Michael Hastings and Adrian Hodges, based on Hastings's original play. Brian Gilbert directed the disappointing drama.

* ``Cobb'' and ``Tom & Viv'' are both rated R. ``Cobb'' contains violence, sex, and vulgar language. ``Tom & Viv'' contains sexuality and other adult material.

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