Outsiders In

Three Wishes, area theaters
Powder ,area theaters

SPECULATING ON extramural contexts is one of the great sports of filmgoing. For example, what are the views of vegetarians, Moslems or Jews in the audience for Babe, the talking pig movie? Or, with each new Woody Allen release, what must Mia think?

While the popular press is typically full of this stuff, the discussion usually doesn't go much farther than gossip or brief glimpses into on-the-set hijinks. But this week we are blessed (relatively speaking) with two movies wonderfully (and wickedly) burdened with odd contexts. Powder may be the first movie in history written and directed by a convicted child molester, while Three Wishes has boldly invited both President Clinton and Senator Bob Dole to a joint screening, in the hope of demonstrating that "family values" are still available in popular entertainment. (Dole has already said he'd see it; at press time Clinton hadn't responded.)

That's not all: Powder may also be the first movie about a psychically gifted hairless albino mobile electrical system, while Three Wishes features Patrick Swayze as a Zen-spouting wandering ghost with a magical dog, transported into grimly conformist '50s suburbia. He coaches a Little League team to victory via techniques of non-mind (Think It's a Wonderful Zen Angels in the Outfield and you'll come close).

Could any two movies be weirder? Not unless you're familiar with Hong Kong ghost sagas. But the truly shocking thing about Powder and Three Wishes is that they are actually the same movie! They buy into a plot that Hollywood has used with increasing arrogance since at least the early '80s: the one about the alien, newly deceased, or mystical visitor who shows up to shake ordinary folks out of their complacency. Close Encounters, Starman and E.T. make obvious ancestors, and surely Swayze's Ghost is in the family tree somewhere. But the plotline's appearances have snowballed until it's become not just a little genre but the movie equivalent of a pop music standard.

So--just as hundreds of musicians cover "Amazing Grace" or "Johnny B. Goode," dozens of filmmakers (Field of Dreams, Fluke, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, et al.) turn out their interpretation of a pretty dim concept: The clues are not clear enough within everyday existence that things should change or someone should wake up, so it's up to the outsider to kick the plot's butt into gear.

Both of these movies find ways to rise (well, maybe hop or skip) above this basic contour. Three Wishes, guided by Martha Coolidge (Brighton Beach Memoirs and last year's overloaded Angie), gets in numerous licks at machismo and women's roles. It exercises retroactive revenge on the Fifties by posing Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as a widow in a cookie-cutter suburb who is dedicated as much to starting her own business as to her two boys. Swayze is the drifter whose leg is broken by her car and whom she implausibly invites home to recuperate. He's aloof, haunted, and wears a Buddhist medallion. His name is Jack and I was thinking "Kerouac," but the movie wants us to think he may be a long-lost major league pitcher.

Three Wishes is really three movies (much like Angie was its own sequel). There's the Zen loner story, then the determined widow story, then the magical Disney-dust genie stuff, which feels primarily like an afterthought (the chief victim of this is Mastrantonio's younger son, whom the script forgets from time to time). All the themes manage to congeal in the last scene by abandoning much of the proto-feminist, nonconformist stuff to bring in a handsome guy in a uniform who sets things straight.

Powder looks weirder and reveals less but does the same damn thing. "Powder" himself is a home-schooled loner teen who surfaces after his grandparents die; he's taken to the county school and soon the spoons are flying and minds are being read. Predictably, the citizens fret about this "It" in their midst, but he sequentially wins over the three basic Institutions of Civil Order (Education, Science, the Law), as embodied by the adults who give him half a chance. Then, his job done and his sorrows just too heavy to bear, he gets to be kind of Christlike.

These movies are not without their little joys. Mastrantonio, for example, is completely admirable, though trapped in an illogical plot, and Sean Patrick Flanery--known previously only to those who saw him as a lank-haired adventurer in TV's Indiana Jones Chronicles--is pretty spellbinding as Powder. He hits the character's notes from the start and stays on them, even as his makeup wavers.

But in the final analysis we're left on the beach with a couple of shells that are basically the same. What is it with this story's particular extra-textual context? Is the plot told so often because the original pattern (the Bible, the Koran, other original myths) has been abandoned? Would it be just too boring to show some palpable spirituality, whatever the denomination? Are we moviegoers, like The X-Files's Fox Mulder, constantly waiting for something to swoop down with a big answer? Or are interpretation and magic tricks--as opposed to original creation--all we're left with?

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