Nolte displays versatility as ex-con-turned-playwright

Nick Nolte can be nice and gentle if the occasion calls for it. But mostly he specializes in tough-talking cops, hard-hitting football players, and other macho characters. In his new movie, ``Weeds,'' he gives a twist to his usual he-man image: He plays a jailbird with a weakness for the theatah. Lee, our hero, is behind bars at the beginning of the story. It's a life sentence, no possibility of parole, and he's bored. So he goes to the prison library for a book - any book, the thicker the better.

Soon he's hooked on literature, and after seeing a play in the lockup, he's hooked on drama, too. He writes a play of his own, and it gets a rave review in a newspaper.

True, the review is written by a food critic, but it starts people talking. Lee gets a pardon and starts his own theater group. The actors are scruffy ex-cons like him, but they love the stage. And they're just the people to forgive Lee when he admits he burgled much of his material from another play by a former jailbird - a French guy named Jean Genet.

Lee soon finds that a life in the arts can be as hard and unpredictable as a life in jail. He's never sure how the next audience will react to his unusual prison-style production. And it's not easy keeping his fellow thespians on the straight and narrow. Just one arrest would end the troupe's career, and some members find the call of the wild - shoplifting and other crimes - too tempting to resist.

``Weeds'' has several assets in addition to its fast-moving story and solid performances. It takes a refreshingly positive view of criminal rehabilitation through art and culture. And it shows strong, healthy relationships between white and black characters - something we see too rarely on the screen these days.

Unfortunately, the movie also takes a barbaric approach to women: It treats its female characters with a crudeness that matches its prison-type language and knockabout sex scenes.

This is unexpected, since ``Weeds'' was written by a woman, Dorothy Tristan, in collaboration with her husband, John Hancock, who directed the picture. They worked for years on the project, which is loosely based on actual prison-theater experiences, including those of Rick Cluchey and his troupe.

In addition to its sexism, ``Weeds'' is an uneven film that tends to lurch instead of flow, and it drowns too many passages in an overeager music score.

Yet somehow the movie works much of the time. At its best moments, it's an energetic and surprising comedy-drama that opens a new window on Nick Nolte's wide-ranging talent. The picture is rated R, reflecting its rough language and other vulgarities.

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