Critics often disagree, but they're practically slugging it out over Tempest, the new Paul Mazursky film.
Is this movie a complete muddle - pretentious, disorganized, and ''tampering with Shakespeare'' to boot? Or is it a sparkling exercise in sheer imagination, linking a modernist film-maker with deep European roots?
The answer is: both. ''Tempest'' is an audacious hodgepodge, with moments of sheer sublimity alongside the silliest scenes of the year. It charms you, it disarms you, it leaves you cold, it drives you crazy. It pairs gentle insights with brash vulgarity, sweet sentiments with cheap four-letter words. The only certain thing is that it's the only one of its kind - which may be a blessing, but thank goodness for some kind of break from the mostly drab or juvenile offerings Hollywood has given us this summer.
As the title suggests, the plot takes its cue from Shakespeare. The hero is a New York architect - an updated Prospero - whose ''midlife crisis'' drives him to a lonely Greek island with Miranda, his teenage daughter. Also on hand is his platonic girlfriend (the Ariel of the piece) and an earthy goatherder named Kalibanos. While these details are close to Shakespeare's play, the film also diverges constantly, with flashbacks to the hero's troubled marriage, stormy career, and shallow life style as a modern sophisticate. The tempest itself comes, not at the beginning, but at the climax, leading to the requisite happy ending.
The big question is: Why rehash a Shakespeare masterpiece in modern terms, with many switches and shufflings? The answer seems to lie deep in Mazursky's creative personality. Always an introspective filmmaker, he appears to see Prospero as a metaphor on two levels - representing not only the artist with ''magic'' at his command, but also the Everyman who gropes for hope and comfort while wading gingerly through middle age. In ways, this uneasy Prospero is closely related to such earlier Mazursky characters as the ''Unmarried Woman'' and the hapless ''Alex in Wonderland,'' each of whom had to reassess their lives in midstream. And it's clear that Mazursky is exploring his own creative processes as well, finding them intimately wrapped in hopes, dreams, and relations with those near and dear.
In pursuing these themes, Mazursky takes a risk a minute, and lots of them don't pay off. With its antic variations on Shakespeare, the structure of ''Tempest'' allows for lots of whimsy, and Mazursky is wretched at whimsy. Aiming for the innocent and playful, he achieves the vapid and vulgar - not all the time, but often enough to make even the sympathetic viewer cringe. He indulges his actors, dilutes his dialogue, and edits himself into the clumsiest of corners.
But when his impulses do strike a rich vein, he can knock you out of your chair. This happens most often when his characters open up to one another, expressing worlds of love, understanding, or just confused affection with a superbly expressive glance or phrase. Mazursky understands a lot about relationships, and isn't embarrassed about treating old-fashioned ideas with old-fashioned seriousness. In this age of movies that look like Pac-Man directed them, here's a filmmaker who really cares about commitment, responsibility, and maturity, not to mention the value of marriage and the profound implications of parenthood. The movie plumbs these themes sincerely, when it isn't busy with flimsy jokes about a modern-day Stephano and Trinculo, or similar nonsense.
It's revealing that John Cassavettes and Gena Rowlands (married to each other in real life) play the architect and his wife in ''Tempest.'' The film has strong resemblances to some of Cassavettes's own pictures - the finale, for example, has the same goofy cheer and inspired irrationality that fill the end of Cassavettes's underrated ''Opening Night,'' though Mazursky doesn't sustain these qualities so well or raise them to the same pitch. The similarity is curious, since Mazursky is not normally as instinctive or impulsive a filmmaker as Cassavettes is. Still, the Cassavettes influence is felt in ''Tempest'' far beyond the limits of his own quirky performance.
It's possible that the critical brawls over ''Tempest'' will generate more interest and sell more tickets than consistently polite notices would have done. It's easy to see why many reviewers take umbrage at ''Tempest,'' which has the chutzpah to mingle realism, fantasy, and Elizabethan romance into a capricious meditation on sober-sided themes. When the climax arrives and our Manhattan-bred Prospero conjures up a storm with all the supernatural abandon of Mickey Mouse in ''Fantasia,'' you might well want to hoot. But it's bold, and big, and even beautiful at times. That's more than most recent movies can claim.