MST 1890

Sodom in the Sierras: Milla Jovovich and Wes Bentley in <i>The Claim</i>

Sodom in the Sierras: Milla Jovovich and Wes Bentley in The Claim

I sure wish I'd been a prostitute in the Old West. As the mini-epic The Claim proves, everyone liked prostitutes back then. They got to party all the time, and they got paid for it. The Old West was just a real special time to be a hooker.

So much for the historical romance of The Claim, a star-studded movie with the look and feel of real drama, but with so many problems that it becomes necessary to mock the thing almost immediately after it begins. (Which makes me sad, since it's directed by Michael Winterbottom, of the brilliant Welcome to Sarajevo.)

The plot (based on the Thomas Hardy novel The Mayor of Casterbridge) is revealed in miserly bits and pieces to make you think it's mysterious and important. I'll save you some unnecessary work right now: There's this superrich guy, Mr. Dillon (Peter Mullan), who owns a tiny Gold Rush-era town called Kingdom Come, where it's always winter, and where the main attraction is a saloon with excellent whores. Dillon's playmate is a Portuguese madam played by the semi-interesting Milla Jovovich. One day three people arrive who will forever alter Dillon's Sodom in the Sierras: a guy named Dalglish (Wes Bentley), from the new railroad, who must decide whether the train tracks will pass through town, and, thus, whether the Kingdom comes or dies; and a girl named Hope (Sarah Polley) and her mother Elena (Nastassja Kinski), who are somehow related to Dillon.

The film's visuals are its strongest point, attempting a grittily beautiful Old West in winter--or a copy of Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller. (Oddly, the saloon--the film's spiritual haven--is exempt from the demands of realism. Here, everyone is blissed out and aglow, which says something about the film's gender p.o.v., not to mention its interest in honesty.) Many period props are fussed over, like the clever pocket warmer that Dalglish loans to Hope.

Now, if the same attention to detail had been applied to the script, we'd have a winner. As it is, one wonders how such a promising plot could feel so unengaging, and how such fine actors could act so poorly. Polley achieves near-Ryderesque woodenness, and Bentley, whose character is supposedly in love with hers, acts catatonic whenever Jovovich isn't around. (Oops!) Jovovich, through pure energy, actually steals the show. But the characters are so underdeveloped, and the actors so uncomfortable with their lines, that we're constantly aware of watching Hollywood's new hotties trying to rack up one more respectable film on their résumés. You can almost imagine them having a real conversation underneath the awkward dialogue and period costumes, translated by Annie Hall-style subtitles.

Picture our up-and-coming threesome meeting on the Kingdom Come town square:

Dalglish: Pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Lucia. (Hey, Milla! Great to see you! You were fantastic in The Messenger!)

Miss Lucia: Ah, Mr. Dalglish [with vaguely Slavic drawl]. I hope you will pay us a visit at the saloon. (Who are you? Do you have a cigarette?)

Dalglish: My father always said, "Work before pleasure." (We met at that Oscar party, remember? I was in American Beauty.)

Miss Lucia: Pleasure is my work. (Have you heard about my new project? It's a cinematic tribute to myself, my gift, and everything I have been through, called Milla-nnium: The Milla Jovovich Story. I will do all my own singing.)

Dalglish: And your work is surely my pleasure. (I could play the good-natured voyeur!)

Hope: I've just arrived with my mother to see Mr. Dillon. (Um, I was in Go.)

Which leads to the obvious question: Where's Mystery Science Theater when you need it?