(director/writer: Paul Auster; cinematographer: Alik Sakharov; editor: Tim Squyres; cast: Harvey Keitel (Izzy), Mira Sorvino (Celia Burns), Willem Dafoe (Dr. Van Horn), Gina Gershon (Hannah), Mandy Patinkin (Philip Kleinman), Vanessa Redgrave (Catherine Moore), Victor Argo (Pierre); Rundown: 103; Pinefilm; 1998)
“I just got the feeling Auster didn’t know too much more about this mystery than the viewer did.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is writer Paul Auster’s film debut as sole director, after doing a script for “Smoke” and co-directing with Wayne Wang on “Blue in the Face.”

Jazz saxophonist Izzy Maurer (Harvey Keitel) is hit by a stray bullet while performing at a NYC nightclub and suffers from a collapsed lung, which will prevent him from playing the sax again. It also puts him in a depressed mood, as he says he would rather die than live and not play his music. The remainder of the film flounders in long stretches of unbelievable fantasy, some soothing touches of originality here and there, oodles of romantic schmaltz, and a story that can’t hold up to intelligent scrutiny. But, then again, if you bought into the film’s gimmicky filmmaking style and didn’t think it was a smarty-arty pretentious ploy like I did, then maybe you can have a better feel for how the story transpired than I did.

Izzy’s ex-wife Hannah (Gina Gershon) makes contact with him and even though she is happy living with her new boyfriend, the producer Philip Kleinman (Mandy Patinkin), and his young daughter, she tells him that she is concerned about him and reassures him — that once I gave you my heart it is forever even if I don’t want to live with you anymore. This results in an invite to dinner at her place with Phil’s guest who will direct his next film, the former actress and now director of a new production of “Pandora’s Box,” Catherine Moore (Vanessa Redgrave). Her film is scheduled to be a contemporary remake of the film where Louise Brooks played the sexually liberated Lulu, in G.W. Pabst’s silent masterpiece. Catherine is looking for a new face to play Lulu.

Celia Burns (Mira Sorvino), who is an aspiring actress, reports to work at her fancy restaurant and tells her boss, Pierre (Victor Argo), that she just bought the CD of the sax player who won’t ever play again and plans to listen to him play for the first-time when she gets off work.

Izzy, walking home from his ex’s Lower Manhattan apartment after his dinner engagement, stumbles upon the dead body of a man identified as Stanley Mars and finds in his briefcase a napkin with a telephone number and a stone, which magically glows with a healing blue light when he darkens the room. The next day he calls the number on the napkin and it’s Celia Burn’s number, and by coincidence she is listening to his CD.

The stone causes the two strangers and unlikely lovers to feel connected to each other, and thus starts a syrupy romance. This love affair takes off so fast that they are not only sleeping together right away but Izzy immediately becomes a busboy in Celia’s restaurant because he can’t stay away from her, even for a short time. Their romance is that sticky. And like the Man says, his job is to be with her now all the time.

It’s learned that Celia coincidentally is trying out for the part of Lulu in an audition, whereby Izzy tells her that he’ll speak to Phil and smooth things over.

At the restaurant, a patron gets fresh with the waitress and the hot-tempered Izzy rushes needlessly to her aid. He gets fired and Celia quits as a matter of principle, but is traumatized because she needs the money from the job since her acting career is not coming along as well as she hoped it would.

But things change for the better when Catherine calls Celia and tells her that she got the part as Lulu and they will be soon filming in Dublin. Izzy tells her he’ll join her there in a few days, but he never says why he can’t make it on time. But the reason becomes obvious when some thugs come questioning him about the stone and wreck his apartment looking for it. The filmmaker must have thought it would work out better for the story if he gets jumped in NYC rather than in Dublin, and so that’s where he gets mugged.

After the thugs are through with him Izzy is held captive by a mysterious anthropologist, Dr. Van Horn (Willem Dafoe), who questions him repeatedly about his childhood, in the empty warehouse where they keep him locked up. It was campy fun to follow his line of questioning.

All we get to know about the mystery of the stone is from Dr. Van Horn. We hear him prattle on about how precious the stone is and if in the right hands, such as his, how much good it can do. There will be no payoff regarding knowing anything more about this mystery, which is a major problem with the film.

There is so much wrong with this film that even when things are going well and it seems like there’s some suspense, inevitably it is ruined by a scene that just doesn’t make sense. To be more precise in my critique would be to give away the film’s flimsy payoff, which would not be fair to those who haven’t seen Lulu. It would spoil the little fun there is in the film.

I just got the feeling Auster didn’t know too much more about this mystery than the viewer did. I also thought Keitel was too old to play the love interest of a much younger Sorvino.