Despite strong performances, controversial remake excessive, bordering on absurd
Let's just clear this up right off the bat: Adrian Lyne's "Lolita" is neither as horrible as its detractors assert nor is it entirely worthy of its supporters' praise. It's a handsomely-made movie that is quite engaging, but for all the wrong reasons.
It puts the audience in the position of being asked to sympathize with Humbert Humbert (Jeremy Irons), a pedophile with what should be an easily controllable infatuation with a pubescent girl. It doesn't condemn him, although you do get to watch him suffer. It does sexualize Dominique Swain, the then 14-year-old girl who plays Lolita and front-loads almost every scene with the scent of the lascivious, largely because we're watching this girl experiment with her budding seductive power over men.
Sometimes it's so effective you feel a little dirty just for not getting up walking out of the theater. Other times it backfires and seems idiotic (was it really necessary for Lolita to call her captivated stepfather "Humpy"?).
Jeremy Irons stars as Humbert, and his performance is almost too convincing at times. Iron's native understatedness bears stark contrast to his character's rampant lust. Humbert is sad and pathetic -- a man with no self control -- but Irons lobbies a little too hard for sympathy in his portrayal. He and Lyne seem to have conspired in an effort to make the audience inherently understand where the character is coming from, and that's just more than we need to know.
It's Lyne's passion for the story that weighs the movie down. Determined to present it from Humbert's point of view, he skips over any raw emotions the other characters might be feeling, like when he fades out rather than let us see Lolita's reaction to the news of her mother's death.
Swain could have handled the scene, no problem. A natural actress, she is disturbingly seductive, and very natural about it -- just what the character needs -- and she plays this girl's uninhibited sexual experimentation with a knowing credibility. But this presents another problem: It's impossible not to get distracted wondering what the atmosphere was like on the set. How did Swain feel about being objectified? Where was her mother during all this inevitable ogling by a director and actor who were both channeling a dirty old man?
"Lolita" is skillfully executed with a consistently disquieting mood and successfully sepia-toned period flavor. It feels very All-American, like a Tennessee Williams play, and there is never a doubt that this is exactly the film Lyne wanted to make.
But in the end it's not the sexuality that hurts the movie as much as it is Lyne having so much invested emotionally that he became blind to the fact that components of his picture were becoming absurd.
Swain over-acts the childishness at times. The retainer, bubble gum, pig tails and pajamas are fine, but at times her overly-giddy gait looks like Gilda Radner's little girl chacater on Saturday Night live. Lyne tries too hard to make her seem under-ripe -- and only at the most inappropriate moments in the script, as if to beat us over the head with the contradiction. Like Lolita's candy red lipstick, it's obvious and clumsy.
Lyne just doesn't know when enough is enough. I mean, did we really need a fellatio demonstration on a banana?
For all its controversy, this "Lolita" is no criminal perversion, but more a study in how excessive an artist can become when he gets a little too determined to force his exact vision on the audience instead of allowing us to draw our own conclusions.