January 2, 2015

The Leading Man

The Leading Man (96 minutes) 1996/Rated R – starring Jon Bon Jovi, Anna Galiena, Lambert Wilson, Thandie Newton, Barry Humphries, Patricia Hodge, Diana Quick, Harriet Walter, David Warner. Directed by John Duigan. Released through BMG Independents Home Video.

British playwright Felix Webb is having an affair with the leading lady of his latest production, Hilary Rule. Felix’s wife Elena suspects he is straying. Felix does not wish to hurt Elena’s feelings as he contemplates leaving her for Hilary. Enter Jon Bon Jovi as Robin Grange, a sweet-talking, smoldering, high-profile American actor who has chosen to perform in Felix’s new play. Sensing the distraught Felix’s weakness of the heart, Robin swoops in like a silent tornado, with his lothario looks and slick charisma, offering to seduce Elena, for Felix’s sake, of course, so that Hilary and Felix can conduct their affair guilt-free. What Robin’s true motivations are and how this quartet of carnal cougars contend with Robin’s overt sexuality, ultimately set this plot on a path to potential destruction.

John Duigan, director of films like “Wide Sargasso Sea” and “Sirens,” has had a knack for presenting sophisticated plotting and mature themes in a bemused, uncomplicated manner throughout his sexually-entrenched narratives. “The Leading Man” tumbles each turn of the story over in an uncontrived, realistic fashion. It’s like watching a long episode of “Red Shoe Diaries,” except that with Duigon’s deft touch, you can satisfyingly enjoy the proceedings with your brain turned on as well as your lust.

Jon Bon Jovi does a great job with his role as the mysterious Robin. With his wide smile and soft voice, which never rises above seduction level, he presents the mask of a cipher who only seeks to manipulate and toy with the feelings of others, just because he can. Little touches Duigan’s crew bring to Bon Jovi’s character, such as a small basketball hoop on the back of his dressing room door, help to spotlight the Americanized playfulness Robin is exuding amongst his very English co-stars. Robin is the consummate, conceited actor, a two-dimensional character gliding through real life, devoid of a past, who delights in the instant pleasures he can derive from only the present and the future. Consequences and conscience do not ever cause doubt in him. Bon Jovi, dressed mostly in casual black, knows exactly when to throw a smile to melt a lady’s heart, appears quietly super-confident when a sexy groupie approaches him, and appropriately calm when he moves in tight to stroke the hair of his female prey. So many actors on the screen these days are not able to appear at utmost ease when executing a cerebral playboy role like this. Bon Jovi is comfortable.

The other actors in “The Leading Man” are in top form as well. As the suffering wife, Elena, Anna Galiena exudes humanity and touching grace as she yearns for someone to cast nurturing light on the empty chambers of her heart. Lambert Wilson expertly conveys Felix as a man who conspires to shape his romantic destiny, which, in the end, only serves to reduce him to an unsatisfied, detached existence. And Thandie Newton capably presents Hilary’s tug-of-war emotions as the proverbial woman-in-the-middle pawn. As a favor to Duigan, who cast her in her first major feature film role in “Flirting,” Nicole Kidman shows up in a cameo as an awards presenter, giving the film’s climax an appropriate credibility ace-in-the-hole.

The film’s photography and lighting are gorgeously golden and soft, which lends to the love-in-the-air tone of the piece. Duigan’s subtle direction turns even the briefest of scenes into stylish artistry. For example, a moment in which Elena is getting ready to go out to meet her new love, Robin, is interrupted when Elena’s daughter pops her head in and comments on how beautiful her mother looks. This is all that is said in the scene, yet the daugther delivers the line choked up because ultimately, it’s not a compliment, but an acknowledgment that she knows her mom is having an affair. This scene could have played much more confrontational and overwrought in a less competent director’s hands, but Duigan’s tactful finesse is masterfully evident in the majority of moments throughout this film. For a night of intellectual and mature interplay, “The Leading Man,” and in particular, Jon Bon Jovi’s performance, are well worth a peek.

© 2000 Ned Truslow

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