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(1999) (John Turturro, Katherine Borowitz) (R)

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Drama/Comedy: A turn of the century New York playwright must contend with a bevy of idiosyncratic characters as he tries to get his latest play staged.
In turn of the 19th century New York, Tuccio (JOHN TURTURRO) is the resident playwright of a struggling theatrical troupe who's eager to stage his latest, but still unfinished play, "Illuminata." While his lover, the company's lead actress, Rachel (KATHERINE BOROWITZ), is ready to perform in it, the theater owners, Astergourd (BEVERLY D'ANGELO) and Pallenchio (DONAL McCANN) don't think the work is ready.

When a young actor, Piero (MATTHEW SUSSMAN), collapses during a current production, however, Tuccio jumps at the chance to stage his work right there and then before a live audience. Unfortunately, the only thing that flamboyantly foppish drama critic Umberto Bevalaqua (CHRISTOPHER WALKEN) likes about the play is the presence of a handsome young actor, Marco (BILL IRWIN). When the others realize this, they stage a meeting between the reluctant actor and the critic, hoping the former may be able to persuade the latter to change his review.

Things look up for Tuccio, however, when a veteran theatrical diva, Celimene (SUSAN SARANDON) takes an interest in the playwright and his work, promising him success in exchange for b,ecoming her personal theatrical servant.

Even so, and due to the arrest of the company's senior performer, Flavio (BEN GAZZARA), the tumultuous romance of young performers Dominique (RUFUS SEWELL) and Simone (GEORGINA CATES) and various attempted schemes by other troupe members such as Beppo (LEO BASSI), Marta (AIDA TURTURRO) and Orlandini (DAVID THORNTON), Tuccio struggles to perfect his play while maintaining his sanity and relationship with Rachel.

Unless they're fans of someone in the cast or of live theater, it's extremely unlikely.
For sexual content, nudity and language.
  • JOHN TURTURRO plays a reserved playwright who hopes for success with both his latest play and his romance with Rachel. He does receive some unreturned sexual attention from Celimene.
  • KATHERINE BOROWITZ plays the troupe's leading actress and the love of Tuccio's life who becomes jealous of his apparent connection/relationship with Celimene.
  • SUSAN SARANDON plays an older diva who tries to manipulate Tuccio sexually and offers him guaranteed success in exchange for being her "kept" talent.
  • CHRISTOPHER WALKIN plays a foppish and gay theater critic who's critical of everyone and everything, but does take a liking to Marco and tries to put the moves on him.
  • BILL IRWIN plays that young actor who reluctantly agrees to meet the critic hoping he can persuade him to change his review of their play.
  • BEVERLY D'ANGELO and DONAL McCANN play the theater owners who end up having affairs with others.
  • RUFUS SEWELL plays the troupe's self-absorbed leading man who has sex with Simone and smokes a lot.


    OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
    If you're a respected actor who's set out to helm your sophomore attempt at filmmaking, a general rule of thumb is to hope that your movie will not draw unfavorable comparisons to the previous year's Oscar winner for Best Picture. Unfortunately, that's what's going to happen with John Turturro's "Illuminata," a period piece about a struggling playwright trying to get his latest play staged, his oddball theatrical company, and his love for his leading lady.

    While there are obvious differences between this film and the similarly plotted "Shakespeare in Love," most notably that the former is a romantic comedy and this is more akin to a farce/drama hybrid, viewers -- if there are that many who actually see this one -- will inevitably compare the two. When they do, they'll easily come to the conclusion that this one doesn't stand up well to the current "king of the hill."

    For starters, of the two films this one is initially less intriguing -- the other having that Shakespeare hook compared with this one featuring an anonymous writer -- and doesn't play on as many levels as did that Oscar winner. In addition, this film's complications and obstacles as scripted by Turturro and Brandon Cole (who based this on his original stage play, "Imperfect Love"), aren't as strong or amusing.

    As is the case with many production within a production plots -- whether they involve movies or plays and notwithstanding "Shakespeare in Love" -- this one's interior work (Tuccio's play) turns out not to be worth all of the fuss or the wait. While it's understood that the playwright's work is meant to symbolically represent the movie's concurrent happenings, it's not particularly interesting, entertaining or moving. Considering all of that, scenes from it go on way too long.

    Another problem is that this film's protagonist, as played by Turturro -- yes, he spread himself rather thin here as the cowriter, director, star and producer -- is the weakest of all the characters. Although Turturro's inspired performances are often the highlight of films in which he appears -- think of "Quiz Show" or "Do The Right Thing" -- his character here is as wooden as the sets appearing in the play's production and is far from his inspired playwright character in "Barton Fink."

    While that's apparently been done on purpose, it has two bad side effects. For one, it doesn't endear the character or his goal to the audience. While not every character has to be as lively as an excited Robin Williams, ones who are boring have a much harder time winning over the audience. Secondly, such uninteresting characters make the proceedings, when focused on them, a similarly and dreadfully boring affair.

    Fortunately, that's where the supporting cast comes in. While they can't quite save the day, they certainly manage to redeem some of it. In fact, it's once the farcical qualities involving them start gearing up that the film finally comes to life.

    Of course that's not to say that Turturro (whose directorial debut was 1993's little seen "Mac") doesn't try that right from the start, but his force-fed introduction of eccentric characters and their behavior is too sudden and abrupt for viewers to swallow. Much like the small stage puppets that appear throughout the film, we can easily see the strings (Turturro's obvious efforts at forcing eccentricity) and such manhandling kills the effect. Beyond that, the film suffers from simply possessing too many characters, thus insuring that the audience's attention is unnecessarily divided amongst them and their various affairs.

    It's not until midway through the proceedings, when the film finally catches its stride, that it then manages to become entertaining. In particular, a bedroom farce-like sequence where various couples try to hook up is rather entertaining. While it certainly won't go down as a prime example of that genre, it's generally amusing and fast-paced enough to keep things lively and interesting.

    The highlight, however, is easily a scene where the foppish and seasoned theater critic, played to the hilt by Christopher Walken ("Blast From the Past," "Mousehunt"), tries to seduce Marco, the young and unsure actor inhabited by Bill Irwin ("My Blue Heaven," "Eight Men Out"). Although Irwin -- who's well known for his physical comedy in his own stage show -- could have taken his reactions to Walken's advances to a more outrageous and hilarious physical level, the sequence is clearly a crowd pleaser and Walken's character is obviously a poke at critics and their often literary pretentiousness.

    When the story goes back to the serious material, however, and in particular, the strain that work puts on Tuccio and Rachel's relationship, the film comes up short. While they're the most "realistic" of the characters and Katherine Borowitz ("Mac," "Internal Affairs") -- who's married to Turturro in real life -- does a fine job in her role, the fact that they're the least interesting, coupled with a less than stellar dramatic subplot, means the moments when the film focuses on them are the least satisfying.

    Beyond Walken's fun, if over-the-top performance, other thespians deliver decent takes on their characters. As the aging and not particularly talented diva, Susan Sarandon ("Stepmom," "Twilight") is quite good, Beverly D'Angelo (the "National Lampoon Vacation" movies) is funny as one of the theater owners and Rufus Sewell ("Dark City," "Dangerous Beauty") is decent as the troupe's leading man. Some of the others, however, suffer from there being too many parts, such as Ben Gazzara ("Happiness," "Buffalo 66") in an underwritten role -- concerning a character who's obsessed with his hat -- that never amounts to anything.

    While those in the theater biz may get a knowing kick out of the film, most everyone else will find its mixture of drama and farce a bit too uneven and not particularly that interesting or funny enough to recommend to others. Although it has some moments and despite Turturro's best intentions, overall the picture just doesn't work that well and thus will never emerge from the shadow of last year's similarly plotted Oscar winner. We give "Illuminata" a 3.5 out of 10.

    The following is a brief summary of the content found in this comedy/drama hybrid. Several sexual encounters are present, some of which involve nudity, including one that heavily implies male to female oral sex, and another with a woman manually stimulating a man. Some sexually related dialogue also occurs, a homosexual character tries to put the moves on a straight man, and other nonsexual nudity is also present.

    Profanity is heavy with at least 9 "f" words, along with some other profanities and colorful phrases. Some mild violence is present and one character smokes a great deal, while other smoking and drinking also occurs.

    Beyond all of that, the film's remaining categories have relatively little or nothing in the way of major objectionable content. Nonetheless, should you still be concerned about the film's content, we suggest that you take a closer look at what's been listed.

  • People have drinks in a theater lobby.
  • People have drinks after Tuccio's play.
  • Dominique drinks from a flask.
  • Beppo takes a swig of liquor and then blows it across an open flame (to create a brief fireball).
  • Pallenchio has wine with his meal.
  • Astergourd pours wine for Beppo.
  • We see a recently deceased body -- but other than being dead, it's not gory or bloody.
  • When a woman accuses Umberto of criticizing everything --which he does -- including God, he replies that he does so because He made mistakes and still does so.
  • Looking around the theater, Celimene comments about all the "ugly people" in the world.
  • A person repeatedly spanks a child actor backstage so that he'll be crying when he appears in the middle of a play that requires him to be crying.
  • Various characters have affairs with other characters.
  • Umberto continues to pursue Marco when it's clear the latter isn't comfortable with the thought of that.
  • Celimene tries to bribe Tuccio with guarantees of success and continued sexually related favors should he devote his efforts solely toward her.
  • Although it's not presented to be unsettling, a person collapses on stage and is presumed and then announced to be dead (he's not), but does later die in bed with others by his bedside (which could be unsettling to some viewers).
  • We briefly see a man threaten another person in a darkened tunnel with a knife-life object or shank as he robs him.
  • Stage/play swords: Carried by actors or played with by some kids who hang around the stage.
  • Knifelike object/Shank: Used by a man to threaten another during a robbery.
  • Pistol: Held by Umberto to his own head while feigning suicide to get Marco's attention.
  • Phrases: "Buggered," "Imbecile," "Shut up," "Bitches" and "Slut" (said toward men), "Balls" (testicles), "Whore," "Whoremonger," "Bastard" and "Fat bastard."
  • Beppo pats Marta on the butt. She in turn puts him in a headlock.
  • Beppo takes a swig of liquor and then blows it across an open flame (to create a brief fireball).
  • Umberto holds a pistol to his own head while feigning suicide to get Marco's attention.
  • Beppo rubs pasta all over his bare chest to prove to Astergourd how unconstrained he is.
  • Lying on Astergourd's bed, Beppo takes her wardrobe, puts it on his feet, and then spins it around like a circus performer would.
  • None.
  • None.
  • None.
  • At least 9 "f" words (1 used sexually as is the word "pork"), 1 "s" word, what sounded like 2 slang terms for female genitals ("c*nt"), 2 slang terms for breasts ("t*t"), 3 uses of "buggered," 3 uses each of "Oh God" and "Oh my God" and 1 use each of "G-damn," "Christ," "Jesus" and "God" as exclamations.
  • Marta shows cleavage many times in the low-cut outfit she wears.
  • We hear sexual sounds (a woman's reactions) and then see Simone pleasurably reacting to what Dominique is doing between her legs (we can't see him as he's completely hidden from view). We do see her bare breasts as well as her near orgasmic reaction to his actions (and directions of what he's to do -- "Left...left..."). Moments later, we see her rush out with only a sheet (or something similar) covering her. Dominique is then upset with her saying that she almost climaxed and accuses her of being incapable of "culmination."
  • During a long line of describing things he dislikes, Umberto includes the thought of Celimene "fornicating" with a man.
  • One of the players comments that Dominique "f*cked all day," causing someone else to say that's what their play is all about (fornication).
  • Celimene shows some cleavage in several scenes.
  • As Simone rehearses, a man paints her bare nipple.
  • Tuccio imagines seeing Rachel talking to a man with her bare breasts exposed (and no one seemingly thinking anything of it). This is after that man tells her, "Watching you from twenty feet away, I felt like I slept with you."
  • Flavio makes a comment (that sounded like) finding his daughter having sex with someone and then (what sounded like) having to find someone to have sex with.
  • When complaining to Astergourd about their marriage, he says that he can deal with the lack of sex, but doesn't want his masculinity belittled.
  • Astergourd appears to become visibly aroused when Beppo seductively eats a large flower he brought her.
  • A character comments that Oedipus has sex with his mother in the play named after him.
  • When Marco receives an invitation from Umberto to his house, the young man is upset and tells Beppo that "He'll pork me." Beppo then says, "Well let him. And act like you like it." (All so that the critic may write a favorable review of their play).
  • As Dominique and Orlandini walk along at night, Dominique mentions that he smells sex. Orlandini then asks if he thinks masturbation is a sin and Dominique replies that it depends on where one's other hand is.
  • Marta comes on to Pallenchio as he eats dinner. She states that she's a bone person and likes to suck on bones. We then see her seductively suck on a chicken bone leg and then slowly run it in and out of her mouth. She then starts to undress (off camera) and he looks at her obvious nudity. Moments later, we see him kissing, rubbing and fondling her very large and bare breasts.
  • Umberto, who's gay, tries to seduce Marco (and during this we see a sketch/drawing of two nude men wrestling, showing one of their bare butts). He then tries to get Marco to admit that he's "a buggered rosebud."
  • We see most of Celimene's bare breasts through a sheer curtain hanging in her bedroom. Moments later we see her and Tuccio kissing. Several scenes later and while seated, she asks him if he's ever milked a cow as she undoes his pants and puts her hand inside them. We then see a different angle of this same scene and can see her rhythmically moving her arm (manually stimulating him), but can't see the actual act since his body now blocks our view). We also see his pleasured reaction to what she's doing. Later, she pulls up her dress and tells him to look at what could be his (but we don't see anything, although he apparently does).
  • Simone crawls into bed with Piero, but we don't see anything other than her snuggling up to him.
  • We see Astergourd kissing Beppo's bare chest and belly. Later, we see her writhing on top of him from either sex or oral sex, but we can't see either.
  • Dominique smokes nearly ten times, while other miscellaneous characters briefly smoke and Beppo has a cigar in his mouth in one scene.
  • Astergourd and Pallenchio are having some problems in their marriage (although everything turns out okay in the end after they've fooled around with other people).
  • The life of those involved in the theater.
  • All of the following is meant to be seen in more of a comic, rather than serious, vein.
  • Beppo grabs a man by the throat and pins him to the wall for grabbing Flavio's hat.
  • A child performer purposefully hits Orlandini with a large stick of bread.
  • Flavio hits someone with a cane (who took his hat).
  • Beppo and a police officer briefly struggle and have to be separated.
  • Some brief comments are made about violence and violent scenes in famous plays.
  • A person repeatedly spanks a child actor backstage so that he'll be crying when he appears in the middle of a play that requires him to be crying.
  • Marco and Beppo briefly struggle in their room.
  • Beppo pats Marta on the butt. She in turn puts him in a headlock.
  • We see a man threaten another person in a tunnel as he robs him.
  • Celimene slaps Tuccio who in turn grabs her by the hair and then pushes her down.

  • Reviewed July 16, 1999 / Posted August 20, 1999

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