The last time Czech emigre filmmaker Ivan Passer took camera in hand and made a movie, he came up with what seems like one of the handful of best films of the decade so far: Cutter’s Way, originally titled Cutter and Bone.
Although that film garnered a lot of critical praise, it didn’t do much business. That may explain why it took Passer almost five years to mount his next film, Creator.
This time, Passer leaves the steamy suspense of Cutter’s Way behind. Creator is a comedy, but it’s just the kind of strange comedy you might expect from Passer.
For one thing, Passer is obviously interested in more than just getting laughs. Creator is also a bit of a tearjerker, as it veers to melodrama in its final half-hour (although, thankfully, it never leaves its wit behind).
The story itself (Jeremy Leven adapted his own novel) has Frankensteinian overtones. Peter O’Toole, in radiant, mad glory, plays a genius scientist at a California university. He’s trying to create a clone of his wife, who died 30 years earlier and whose cells he retains in his refrigerator. She represents the last moments of happiness for him.
He is to be assisted in this venture by an unsuspecting graduate student (Vincent Spano, of Baby It’s You) and a wayfaring nymph (Mariel Hemingway) whose ovum he desires. For scientific purposes, that is.
That’s a little off the wall, but Creator must not be confused with the raft of nerdy-genius teen movies that opened this summer. It’s more ambitious than that, as it attempts to compare Spano’s coming of age – he falls for a gorgeous student (Virginia Madsen) – with O’Toole’s growing wisdom about his lost love.
O’Toole is firmly in his element here – larger than life, grand, sweeping. He’s trying to imbue Spano with a sense of what he calls “The Big Picture” – a term he never explains, although it seems to be a moral scheme for looking at the world in something other than petty bureaucratic terms.
Passer is very affectionate toward this renegade character and his eccentricities. It’s where the heart of the film lies. If some of the more sentimental aspects of the story ring hollow, Passer gets most of the details right; for instance, we may notice in the first scenes that Spano takes the same bicycle route that O’Toole did minutes earlier, cutting across the same patch of campus grass. As they haven’t met yet, it is a quiet indication of similar personalities.
Passer fills the movie with these little moments that more than make up for the occasional cliché clinker. Even when the movie shifts gears toward the end – and in fact gets downright peculiar – Passer has a way of keeping the behavior and the dialogue offbeat enough to hold your attention.
His cast is up to the challenge, too; everyone gets almost equal time, including the ostensible villian of the piece, O’Toole’s university rival, played with unexpected flair by M*A*S*H veteran David Ogden Stiers. Even this character, who is primarily a pompous ass, is not just a caricature.
“The Big Picture” is both O’Toole’s theory of life and the movie’s attitude. It tries to cover a lot of ground, and doesn’t always succeed, but I got a better feeling from this film than from most recent movies. Now we can just hope that the gifted director doesn’t make us wait five years for his next movie.
First published in the Herald, September 24, 1985
My main memory of this movie is the disappointment I felt about it, given how much I love Cutter’s Way. (Something on that here.) But I was obviously giving it the old auteurist try in this review, and why not? Passer died in early 2020, and a couple of nights ago was left out of the “In Memoriam” montage at the Oscars.