Hollywood is having a banner year, so the box-office fate of any particular new movie is hardly a make-or-break question. This week is an interesting one in terms of judging audience tastes, however. Which would-be blockbuster will rule the roost: "The Green Mile," with its sentimental suspense story; "Cradle Will Rock," with its starry-eyed historical saga; or "The Cider House Rules," with its cautious mixture of button-pushing subjects and old-fashioned emotionalism?
Odds are that The Green Mile will be the breakaway success of the week, and conceivably of the whole holiday season. Until recently, its three-hour-plus length would have been considered a liability, but hits like "Titanic" and "Saving Private Ryan" have changed the rules.
"The Green Mile" borrows other tricks from those movies, too, including a prologue and epilogue that gift-wrap it as a string of memories in the mind of an aging survivor. Some viewers will squirm with impatience as the misty-eyed prison yarn inches toward its conclusion, but others will willingly succumb to its storytelling spell - or at least to the nearly constant presence of Tom Hanks, one of the most ingratiating stars in the Hollywood firmament.
He plays a death-row prison guard in a Deep South penitentiary during the Depression years. His job is more routine than it sounds, but this changes when an unusual prisoner enters his unit: John Coffey, an African-American man with an enormous body, a simple mind, and a horrifying crime on his record. John is a marginal character for much of the movie, which focuses largely on the death-row guards and two other prisoners. Unexpected events bring out unexpected qualities in John, though, including a gift for healing that he himself doesn't fully understand.
The best thing about "The Green Mile" is that it deals with two substantial issues - spiritual healing and capital punishment - that Hollywood usually finds too serious or controversial to tackle. Unfortunately, it fails to probe these themes with the thoughtfulness they deserve. The death penalty is treated as a plot device rather than a moral concern, and the scenes of healing are closer to "E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial" than to any effort at religious insight.
The result is an overlong drama that would reach a higher level if its makers thought more about stimulating our minds and less about opening our tear ducts. Frank Darabont directed the movie from his own screenplay, as he did with "The Shawshank Redemption" five years ago. Both films are based on works by famed author Stephen King, who has wittily remarked that Darabont has the narrowest specialty of any filmmaker around: prison pictures based on King stories. This recipe has advanced the director's career so far, but it's time for him to try a new bag of tricks.
Cradle Will Rock also takes place in the 1930s, but it paints a much larger canvas, visiting the New York theater scene during a tumultuous era when artistic and political adventures often overlapped. Written and directed by Tim Robbins, it scampers through various story lines about everything from the ambitions of a starving actress to the love-hate relationship between an American millionaire and a Mexican muralist. The climax pits boy-wonder Orson Welles against government officials who want to veto his production of an opera that celebrates the labor movement - or glorifies class warfare, depending on your point of view.
Some moviegoers may find "Cradle Will Rock" too crowded and preachy to serve as a meaningful history lesson. But it will delight anyone who thinks our cynical age could benefit from recalling the vigorous idealism and venturesome artistry of the years before World War II.
The Cider House Rules is based on John Irving's novel of the same title, which may be a warning signal for viewers who found earlier Irving adaptations ("The World According to Garp," "The Hotel New Hampshire") mannered and contrived. Irving has improved as a storyteller, though. He no longer strains so hard to prove how inventive he can be, and the new movie is the best one so far to carry his name.
The hero is an orphan who grows up under the guidance of a kindly physician, drifts toward a different kind of life in a community of African-American laborers, and undergoes emotional trials that eventually bring him back to the orphanage where he started.
Superb performances by Tobey Maguire and Michael Caine bring a bracing sense of humanity to the story, which has the courage to include issues as controversial as abortion and racial discord among its themes.
Alone among recent releases, the film suffers from being too short - it leaves out elements of Irving's novel that are needed for context and balance - but its acting alone is worth the price of admission.
*'The Green Mile,' rated R, contains violence and vulgar language. 'Cradle Will Rock,' rated R, contains vulgarity and nudity. It opens today in limited release and widely on Dec. 17. 'The Cider House Rules,' rated PG-13, includes violence and nudity.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society