"Paradise Road," the new movie starring Glenn Close and recent Oscar-winner Frances McDormand, tells a true story that many moviegoers will find compelling.
At the height of World War II, a large group of women were captured by Japanese forces as they fled Australia on a ship gunned down at sea. Transported to the island of Sumatra, they were kept for years in a prison camp where British and Dutch refugees were also held.
Conditions were brutally bad, and morale was often perilously low. But many of the women gained spiritual strength by singing in a "vocal orchestra," immersing themselves in great music whose beauty helped them cope with their ordeal.
This extraordinary tale has several fine qualities. It reveals a little-known historical episode that ended in triumph for those who survived it. It celebrates the power of music to inspire and uplift people's lives.
It centers on strong, creative women whose courage and ingenuity help them meet challenges that would overcome many of the male heroes who fill today's movie screens.
But if this sounds like a picture you might enjoy, think twice before rushing to the box office.
In addition to its scenes of musical beauty, wartime bravery, and friendship under adversity, "Paradise Road" contains explicit views of women being threatened, assaulted, and beaten; prison authorities treating inmates as if they were animals instead of human beings; one character being tortured for hours of unrelenting pain; and even a helpless woman being burned alive before the horrified eyes of her comrades.
The story had to include these ingredients, of course, as part of its real-life tale. But it didn't have to spill them across the screen in such harrowing detail.
In the end, "Paradise Road" presents a box-office paradox. On one hand, people who want to see an unflinching portrayal of prison-camp brutality won't be much interested in long scenes of emotional bonding and ethereal singing. On the other, people seeking an uplifting tale about friendship and artistic exaltation will be appalled at the picture's outbursts of ultraviolence, however true these may be to the historical record.
If this contradiction hurts ticket sales for "Paradise Road," studio executives may wonder what crimped the picture's success.
A key answer may be that Hollywood movies are often designed by groups - including everyone from scriptwriters to marketing experts - whose members are motivated by different, sometimes conflicting interests. One faction may suggest emphasizing lovely classical music to attract refined viewers with a taste for culture. Another may insist on plenty of violence to draw younger audiences.
Sometimes, such compromises work. Other times, competing goals cancel each other out and kill a movie's chances before opening day.
"Paradise Road' is not the only current film to suffer from the made-by-committee blues. "Inventing the Abbotts," about class tensions and romantic longings in a Midwestern town during the 1950s, has a nostalgic atmosphere and sensitive performances that mature audiences might find very appealing - unless they object to the four-letter language, sex, and nudity that earn the picture an R rating.
Even the animated "Cats Don't Dance," which sports a refreshing G rating, seems driven by conflicting goals. Kids will love the cartoonish action that ensues when a starry-eyed young cat pulls up his small-town stakes and heads for Hollywood to become a musical-comedy star. But how many youngsters will understand the old-movie references that pepper nearly all the dialogue - apparently hoping to please grown-ups who accompany their children to the theater?
Nothing in Hollywood is simple, of course, and there are cases where seemingly mixed motives have surprising box-office potency. "Liar Liar" couples a largely child-centered plot - about a little boy who wishes his fast-talking dad won't be able to lie for 24 hours - with a steady barrage of vulgar words and sex-related humor.
This could have been a recipe for disaster, la Jim Carrey's recent bomb, "The Cable Guy," which turned off almost everyone by gluing slapstick comedy onto a stalker-movie plot. Audiences have been flocking to "Liar Liar," though, revitalizing Carrey's career and giving Hollywood a financial lift as it awaits the potentially profitable warm-weather season.
It remains to be seen whether "Paradise Road" will soar as effortlessly as its music or sink under the weight of its harrowing violence. If the latter possibility comes true, studio chiefs should ask themselves afresh whether they really know what audiences they want to attract - or whether they're wedded to a scattershot approach that tries to please everybody and ends up making nobody happy.
* 'Paradise Road' has an R rating; it contains nudity, vulgar language, and a great deal of harrowing wartime and prison-camp violence. 'Inventing the Abbotts' also has an R rating and contains vulgar language, nudity, and brief but explicit sex. 'Liar Liar,' which has a PG-13 rating, contains much vulgar language and sex-related humor as well as slapstick violence. 'Cats Don't Dance' has a G rating, but its cartoonish violence may be too strong for very young viewers.