April 21, 1995 in Seven

No Thrills From ‘Jefferson In Paris,’ Not Even Cheap Ones

Chris Hewitt St. Paul Pioneer Press
 

‘Jefferson in Paris” opens with a hand duplicating a letter in painstaking calligraphy. That image sums up the movie - beautiful, elegant and just about the dullest thing you’ve ever seen.

The duplicate letters are probably meant to suggest there were two Thomas Jeffersons. One was the third president, a great inventor and statesman who regularly denounced slavery. The other was a slave owner who, according to disputed research, fathered several children with one slave, Sally Hemings.

Nick Nolte plays Jefferson and he Speaks. So. Slowly. That you could parallel-park a semi between his words. Nolte is defiantly modern - his powdered wigs and waistcoats suggest the court of Louis XVI (to which Jefferson was ambassador), but everything else about him suggests a Class of ‘59 University of Iowa linebacker. Nolte can’t manage the gestures or speech of a man from 200 years ago, so his performance is the equivalent of one of those wooden cut-outs you stick your head through to have your picture taken posing as a muscleman or the president.

It’s not Nolte’s fault that “Jefferson in Paris” tells us virtually nothing about the man. Lots of things happen to him during the movie’s 2 hours, but that’s the problem - things happen to him. Jefferson, one of the most important figures in American history, sits around like a lump while others make decisions.

Apparently, half the world lusted for him, including: Greta Scacchi, as an Englishwoman whose husband is a bigger queen than Marie Antoinette; Thandiee Newton, whose lively, cagey Sally Hemings is like a refreshing Altoid in the midst of this stale film; and Gwyneth Paltrow as Jefferson’s daughter, who seems to desire her own father (don’t worry - like everything else in the movie, this subplot is never developed).

There’s also a revolution taking place during “Jefferson in Paris,” though not so’s you’d notice. Frankly, a little violence would have perked things up - an hour or so into this genteel, passionless movie, you begin to feel like you’d do anything for a cheap thrill. But you won’t get it. All you get is Thomas Jefferson acting more like Thomas Pain.

MEMO: These sidebar appeared with story: “Jefferson in Paris” Location: Lyons cinemas Credits: Directed by James Ivory; starring Nick Nolte, Greta Scacchi, Thandie Newton Running time: 142 minutes Rating: PG-13

Other views Here’s what other critics say about “Jefferson in Paris:” Bob Strauss/Los Angeles Daily News: Tackling a subject rich with conflict, passion, historic significance and tragic hypocrisy, (James) Ivory has served up a tedious museum piece. Gorgeously appointed and bursting with intriguing ideas, the film gets stuck in a morass of disjointed encounters and juiceless debates. Jack Mathews/Newsday: … if the man we meet in James Ivory’s “Jefferson in Paris” gives an accurate picture of what he was like to be around, it’s no wonder he dined alone. This is one egocentric, morally ambivalent, sexually confused, wig-headed bore, a man who by all but the most rednecked standards of today would be considered both a racist and a misogynist. He was a prig about the casual sexual morality of the French aristocracy but greedily bedded down with the 15-year-old slave he brought over from Monticello. And in bringing his slaves to a country where owning people was illegal, then encouraging the leaders of the mounting people’s revolt, he may also qualify as the first Ugly American. Janet Maslin/New York Times: There are 10 films within the biographical material for “Jefferson in Paris” - but is there one? Dolores Barclay/AP Arts Editor: … rich detail cannot compensate for weak material and a miscast lead. And for all its pageantry, “Jefferson in Paris,” beautifully photographed by Pierre Lhomme, never springs to life. Carrie Rickey/Philadelphia Inquirer: What the film lacks in bold strokes, it makes up for in emotional shadings.

These sidebar appeared with story: “Jefferson in Paris” Location: Lyons cinemas Credits: Directed by James Ivory; starring Nick Nolte, Greta Scacchi, Thandie Newton Running time: 142 minutes Rating: PG-13

Other views Here’s what other critics say about “Jefferson in Paris:” Bob Strauss/Los Angeles Daily News: Tackling a subject rich with conflict, passion, historic significance and tragic hypocrisy, (James) Ivory has served up a tedious museum piece. Gorgeously appointed and bursting with intriguing ideas, the film gets stuck in a morass of disjointed encounters and juiceless debates. Jack Mathews/Newsday: … if the man we meet in James Ivory’s “Jefferson in Paris” gives an accurate picture of what he was like to be around, it’s no wonder he dined alone. This is one egocentric, morally ambivalent, sexually confused, wig-headed bore, a man who by all but the most rednecked standards of today would be considered both a racist and a misogynist. He was a prig about the casual sexual morality of the French aristocracy but greedily bedded down with the 15-year-old slave he brought over from Monticello. And in bringing his slaves to a country where owning people was illegal, then encouraging the leaders of the mounting people’s revolt, he may also qualify as the first Ugly American. Janet Maslin/New York Times: There are 10 films within the biographical material for “Jefferson in Paris” - but is there one? Dolores Barclay/AP Arts Editor: … rich detail cannot compensate for weak material and a miscast lead. And for all its pageantry, “Jefferson in Paris,” beautifully photographed by Pierre Lhomme, never springs to life. Carrie Rickey/Philadelphia Inquirer: What the film lacks in bold strokes, it makes up for in emotional shadings.


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