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Sour Town

Dogville screws the pooch.


f only Dogville were involving enough to be perplexing. Sigh. Lars von Trier's latest thingamabob is a large, pretentious blob of coulda-been. As in, it coulda been deep and insightful. It coulda been sociologically challenging. It coulda been formalistically thrilling. But it isn't. Sigh again -- three increasingly tiresome hours of sigh.

By now, of course, Trier (the "von" is fake) has accumulated such a following that he could crap on a paper plate and his cultists would clamber over each other to have it gold-plated. Trier is at his dubious best when he's making lazy narratives about cuddly girl-women suffering heinous fates. (Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark are somewhat moving, if terribly absurd.) He tries to evolve this formula with Dogville but ends up being gummed to death by his own toothless experiment.

The shtick this time is that Trier has created his fantasy of provincial America on a large soundstage, using chalk outlines in place of sets. For about half an hour, this is moderately engaging, like watching a semi-elaborate stage play filmed in the style of a twitchy jeans commercial. Trier, who has made a big, look-at-me deal out of never visiting the United States and understands approximately as much about the place as its current president knows of the Vietnam War, invites us to believe that we are in the titular burg circa the 1930s.

In a prologue and nine protracted chapters, with John Hurt providing narration, Dogville charts the struggles of what appears to be Trier's latest feminine alter-ego ("I was raised to be arrogant," she explains), the none-too-subtly named Grace (a sleepwalking Nicole Kidman). On the lam from mobsters, including the ever-amusing Udo Kier and boring old James Caan, glammy Grace is taken under the protective wing of Dogville's self-appointed ethicist, Tom Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany, whose accent and carriage toe the line of farce), who presents her to the townsfolk and suggests that they harbor her for a limited trial period.

Dogville's denizens basically represent a rethinking of Thornton Wilder's Our Town with a twist of Brecht. There are ambitious little stabs made at character complexity, socio-economic struggles, folks just being folks: Lauren Bacall as a matriarch fussing over her gooseberry bushes, Stellan Skarsgard as a libidinous apple farmer, Patricia Clarkson as his obsessive wife (both excellent), Ben Gazzara as a sight-impaired geezer who likes a good view, Cleo King as a loyal nanny, Zeljko Ivanek as a seemingly noble truck driver.

But after Trier sets up his characters, things go predictably sour, and it is we who are made to feel set up. When Grace's reputation comes under fire, she finds herself increasingly put-upon, then raped, tortured and chained up like a beast. Since everything here is fake, though, Grace's fall is hardly harrowing. In fact, its depiction of ghastly social ills is obnoxiously quaint; annoyance, not outrage, is engendered.

Dogville is dullsville. You can learn much more about America -- and Colorado in particular -- from watching the significantly more creative and enjoyable South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. If you prefer your hardscrabble mountain sagas dramatic, try The Claim, from Michael Winterbottom, who is a real director.

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