Monday, August 30, 1999

Even deft acting can't fill deep space

Movie: The Astronaut's Wife

Posted on Mon, Aug 30, 1999 at 4:00 AM

**
Our Rating: 2.00

Even though it stars top-shelf actor Johnny Depp and everyone complains about the lack of good Hollywood roles for women, you'd be mistaken to think "The Astronaut's Wife" is actually about her husband.

This plodding, mostly low-tech science-fiction flick really does concern itself with the title character, a second-grade schoolteacher whose main job seems to involve lots of hand-wringing while her man's getting high.

(Note to space freaks: Depp's participation occurs mainly off-screen, making this one of the least space-like of outer-space movies.)

Not only does Depp get sky high, he gets lost in the sky, for about two minutes, while doodling around a spacecraft. And when he returns, nothing's quite the same.

Apparently writer-director Rand Ravich thinks nobody's seen or heard of "Rosemary's Baby," because he treats us as if we don't know what's going on when wifey gets preggers with twins shortly after Depp's outer-space rendezvous with Something Strange.

(Note to horror/demonic-possession freaks: The same budget constraints that limit the space stuff minimizes the special effects you might usually expect in scary footage.)

Well, we know what's going on. And that's the flaw in this good-looking but lightweight character study. Even a tacky tacked-on ending doesn't provide much more for us to mull over.

Thus, most of our time with you-know-who is spent watching Charlize Theron worry her pretty little head a whole lot. Thankfully, Theron acts as well as she looks. She fills up a screen with brow-knitting that always suggests something bigger is about to pop up out of this movie. That it doesn't isn't her fault.

Ravich, who includes the script for "Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh" in his resume, is a screenwriter who was able to convince producers he could direct his own script. Judging from "The Astronaut's Wife," he should concentrate on being a director who interprets other writers' work.

His visuals here can be stunning. Given a low budget that skimps on the outer-space stuff, he makes his limited number of sets (and actors) look like they're more than they are. Ravich knows his way around a close-up, and wants to prove it so much you may find yourself far more interested in Theron's complexion than in whatever is troubling her at the moment.

Depp fans won't be thoroughly disappointed; the actor who never appears the same way twice affects an authentic down-home pilot's drawl that sounds as reassuring as if it came right out of an airliner speaker system.

It's thoroughly Depp-like that he take on a supporting role instead of a headline part (even though he gets above-the-title billing). He's an actor's actor, and that comes through whenever he declines to bully his way through a scene that rightfully belongs to Theron; we're left to wonder what some other big-name actor, like maybe Kevin Costner, might do.

(Note to Hollywood news freaks: After a stunning debut in "Two Days in the Valley" and holding her own in a wifey part with Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino in "Devil's Advocate," Theron's showing that her quick rise to stardom has as much to do with her talent as her sultry blond good looks.)

Theron and Depp can feel good about this minor film effort, even though its box office isn't likely to impress their accountants.

And we can look forward to good-looking movies from Ravich, as long as someone else is doing the writing.

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