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Saturday, Aug. 19, 2000


Don't just be there, be strong for me

"The Limey" could be renamed along the lines of "Father and Daughter" or "Dad Does His Best" or "My Dad the Hero" -- all too uncool compared to the original, but they sure get to the bottom line. This is, without doubt, the finest father-daughter movie ever.

Normally I'm no sucker for this genre, because (a) there are so few of them around, and (b) they're full of baloney (aside from "American Beauty"). But "The Limey" is a movie that chucks out the phoniness and embarrassment of the father-daughter relationship and homes in on what's most important. If you're an expectant father, or worrying about a teenage daughter, fling the Dr. Spock books across the room and go to the theater.

More eloquent, insightful and just plain right than a stack of child psychology books, "The Limey" teaches us about male parenthood and what fathers can do for their daughters. It's not about spending quality time, being there for school functions, buying a Volvo as a graduation present. No, you can be absentee, alcoholic, aimless, jobless, cashless.

But when your girl is mistreated in any way, then it's time to go out there and beat the daylights out of the bastards who did the foul deed. As a matter of course, prepare to be hurt, arrested or even killed. If you're looking for an operatic ending, you can die in your daughter's arms. This, dads, is the honest-to-god truth of what girls want from their papas. (However, for any fathers out there willing to present me with a Volvo, I wouldn't say no.)

"Limey" is a Stephen Soderbergh work, which means you're in for either a carefully crafted Hollywood blockbuster ("Erin Brockovich," "Out of Sight") or something smaller, more personal and intriguing ("Sex, Lies and Videotape," "Kafka").

"Limey" is of the latter category, an engaging balance of big names, small budget and an oddly poetic story line. Besides the dad/daughter connection, Soderbergh makes a grand tribute to the '60s, an era that he was born too late for but whose ghost he captures and brings on screen with great finesse.

For this, he cast Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda in lead roles. He inserted clips from a 1968 Ken Loach movie ("Poor Cow"). He has Fonda say things like: "Have you ever dreamed about a place you never recalled going to before? That was the '60s, or more precisely, the years between '66 and '68 . . ." [faraway gaze and smile]. The soundtrack features The Who and Steppenwolf.

But to Soderbergh's credit, there's not one flashback scene of flower children sitting around on floor cushions or in the throes of campus demonstrations. The story is staunchly present-day, with brief but effective reminiscences of "what it was like back then." The whole thing is very subtle, like music heard from another room.

Likewise, the dad-daughter relationship is not one of those supposedly therapeutic, emotional jobs with lots of tears and hugs. The pair, in fact, never occupy the same frame. The sincerity is real, but it's more fragrance than actual presence.

And little wonder, because the story opens with the daughter's death in L.A. The last time she saw her father was nine years ago, just before he was arrested for robbery. This was in London, where she had spent her entire childhood waiting for him to be released from one prison sentence after another. This last time, Wilson (Stamp) had sworn he would go straight. Then came news of the car accident that killed his "lit'l girl, Jenny."

Somehow, he smells a fish of mega-proportions. Wilson flies to L.A. where Jenny had been living with a boyfriend: bigwig music producer Valentine (Fonda). Valentine has already installed Jenny's successor, gives parties and is generally living the beautiful life. Wilson is pissed off. He seeks out Eduardo (Luis Guzman) and Elaine (Lesley Ann Warren), who were Jenny's best friends, and tries to pin down what really happened. The more he pokes around, the more he's convinced that Valentine was the cause of Jenny's demise.

Wilson becomes one towering flame of vengeance. "Tell him I'm coming," he fumes. "Tell him I'm f***ing coming!"

Though there's a big kick out of seeing Fonda as the elegant, affluent sleaze bag who sold out his '60s ideals long ago, the movie belongs to Stamp alone. So what if Wilson is an aging career criminal with nothing but a suitcase to his name, so what if he was never there for school functions. This is a dream dad, the kind of dream dad one is too dumb to recognize as such before the age of 25. One doesn't want to date him, you understand, but one does want to be protected by him.

Imagine the joy of walking into a restaurant with such a dad at your side. Other dads will be wearing chinos and large T-shirts, but this dad wears a rumpled Saville Row-type suit and his speech is so cockneyfied no one understands a word he says. Yet he exudes aristocracy from head to foot. If this is a sampling of a Limey, then by Jove I'm off to Blighty.

"The Limey" opens today at Ebisu Garden Cinema.

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