August 16, 1996 in Seven

‘Emma’ Sacrifices Emotion For Lots Of Laughs

Chris Hewitt St. Paul Pioneer Press
 

“Emma,” set in England around 1815, finds most of its humor in the difference between what is said and what is meant. The more you hate someone, the nicer you are, and if someone’s wearing an awful dress, the worst thing you’d say is, “It’s charming, I suppose.”

By now, Jane Austen has become a sort of empire-waisted John Grisham, with four movies in the last year (“Persuasion,” “Sense and Sensibility” and “Clueless,” which was adapted from “Emma,” are the others). Her books still work because the key to her stories remains true: The right people are always falling in love with the wrong people.

Paltrow, who employs an encyclopedic collection of vexed looks, is outstanding as a terrible matchmaker with character judgment that is unerringly wrong. She finds the perfect balance between Emma’s ultra-civil sarcasm and her essential goodness. Even as she protests that she wouldn’t dream of giving advice, Paltrow makes Emma’s need to “help” as plain as the hunger of a vulture hovering over a gasping warthog.

Director/writer Doug McGrath has written a witty screenplay - you could cut the pretension with a knife - and chosen great actors. Besides Paltrow, there are hilarious performances by Juliet Stevenson as the minister’s bitchy wife, Sophie Thompson (Emma’s sister) as an empty-headed chatterbox and Ewan McGregor as the village’s answer to Jason Priestly.

In pursuit of wall-to-wall laughs, McGrath sacrifices some of the heart of “Emma.” There’s a devastating scene when Paltrow insults Thompson, but McGrath glosses over most of the emotionally challenging material and inserts unfunny slapstick involving the clumsiness of Emma’s friend Harriet. Most of the movie is swell, but that stuff? It’s charming, I suppose.

MEMO: These sidebars appeared with the story: “EMMA” Locations: North Division, Lincoln Heights and Coeur d’Alene cinemas Credits: Directed by Doug McGrath, starring Gwyneth Paltrow Running time: 2:01 Rating: PG

OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Emma: “Henry Sheehan/Orange County Register: Sadly, (director Douglas) McGrath is not up to the tone and complexities of structure needed to tame Austen’s unbridled plots. The movie lunges through its subplots and seizes upon humorous subtleties as if they were nightclub one-liners. Jack Mathews/Newsday: Of the three Jane Austen novels that inspired movies last year, “Emma” was the one named “Clueless.” Janet Maslin/New York Times: The posthumous queen of genteel cinema is still on a roll. Jane Austen remains a hot ticket with the arrival of “Emma,” another decorative comedy of 19th-century manners honed to a sharply 20th-century edge.

These sidebars appeared with the story: “EMMA” Locations: North Division, Lincoln Heights and Coeur d’Alene cinemas Credits: Directed by Doug McGrath, starring Gwyneth Paltrow Running time: 2:01 Rating: PG

OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Emma: “Henry Sheehan/Orange County Register: Sadly, (director Douglas) McGrath is not up to the tone and complexities of structure needed to tame Austen’s unbridled plots. The movie lunges through its subplots and seizes upon humorous subtleties as if they were nightclub one-liners. Jack Mathews/Newsday: Of the three Jane Austen novels that inspired movies last year, “Emma” was the one named “Clueless.” Janet Maslin/New York Times: The posthumous queen of genteel cinema is still on a roll. Jane Austen remains a hot ticket with the arrival of “Emma,” another decorative comedy of 19th-century manners honed to a sharply 20th-century edge.


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