Mother Night (Keith Gordon)

Rating: **1/2 (out of ****)

On the list of celebrated contemporary writers whose novels present nearly insurmountable difficulties to those who would adapt them for the screen, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. is definitely somewhere near the top, not far from Pynchon and Eco and Kundera. What's surprising, then, is not that Keith Gordon's film of Vonnegut's Mother Night ultimately fails, but that Gordon, against all odds, manages to achieve a measure of success, however qualified. Previously a solid if uninspired actor (Dressed to Kill, Christine), Gordon sauntered behind the lens in 1988; his career to date has consisted entirely of literary adaptations, and with his first two efforts -- based respectively upon Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War and William Wharton's A Midnight Clear -- he proved himself adept at performing the peculiar alchemy necessary to effectively translate words into images, at finding just the right tone. Here, perhaps recognizing that Vonnegut's jocular, aphoristic prose doesn't exactly lend itself to the medium, he opts to shift gears, creating a fairly naturalistic drama from what, on the page, is darkly comedic. This is a terrible, ruinous mistake, and the result should be nigh-well unwatchable...and yet, somehow, it almost kinda works. The material doesn't really make much sense as drama, but it's oddly fascinating nonetheless, and Nick Nolte brings such conviction and intelligence to his portrayal of the protagonist, Howard Campbell, Jr. -- an American playwright living in WWII Germany who transmits coded messages to the U.S. via his weekly anti-Semitic radio broadcasts -- that it's possible to forget, now and again, how patently ridiculous the narrative is, and hence how jarringly inappropriate Gordon's somber tone is for Vonnegut's absurd story. And, very occasionally, Gordon does justice to his source; a scene in which Campbell stands motionless on the sidewalk for several hours, for example, is handled beautifully, with nonchalant visual grace, demonstrating what might have been. Ultimately, however, Mother Night comes across as a rather unsightly hybrid; imagine The War of the Roses as directed by Ingmar Bergman, or a Richard Attenborough remake of Heathers. You can't stop watching, but you can't stop wincing, either.