Mark Kermode - Bacon and egg

A meaty treat satisfies much more than a scrambled satire. By Mark Kermode

The Woodsman (15)

Despite an ongoing lack of serious critical attention, Kevin Bacon has long been recognised as an unusually versatile actor. An icon of oddball movie casting, his CV ranges from starring roles in the hot-to-trot teen romance Footloose and the giant earthworm monster romp Tremors to more low-key appearances in Oliver Stone's headbangingly polemical JFK and the allegedly true-life abuse drama Sleepers. For proof of the bewildering diversity of his career, look no further than the long-running movie-geek game "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon", in which players attempt to link Bacon to any other actor in the world through the myriad connections of his erratic filmography.

Having recently turned in characteristically self-effacing supporting roles in such acclaimed thrillers as Clint Eastwood's Mystic River and Jane Campion's In the Cut, Bacon now takes centre stage in The Woodsman, in which he breathes surprisingly sympathetic life into the role of Walter, a "reformed" child molester. Re-entering the world after 12 years in jail, Walter is shunned by friends and family and ostracised by workmates. He ekes out a lonely existence in his Spartan flat (which perversely overlooks an elementary school) and at the local lumber yard, where his outsider status provokes both affection and rejection.

Adapted from Steven Fechter's stage play, yet thankfully low on stagy theatrics, Nicole Kassell's ambitious debut feature as a director is an impressively well-balanced affair that neither vilifies nor vindicates its uncomfortable central character. Despite the shambling pathos of Walter's appearance, his predatory malaise remains a threat to him and those around him. It is a testament to Bacon's talents that he embodies both the monstrousness and the mundanity of his character with ease, reminding us that Walter, too, is human but not letting us forget the awful inhumanity of his crimes.

Kassell has cited Tim Robbins's Dead Man Walking as an inspirational touchstone, pointing to the empathy that we feel for Sean Penn's unquestionably guilty character in that Oscar-winning drama. Although Bacon's insightful performance in The Woodsman has slipped off the Academy's radar, the widespread critical plaudits it has garnered are thoroughly deserved: this is the work of a "character actor" (that horribly patronising term) stepping back into the spotlight where he rightly belongs, and proving that he is more than a match for most of Hollywood's mainstream "stars".

While Bacon's name has often gone unnoticed, the appearance of Adam Sandler's moniker in a movie's credits was, until recently, an unmissable indication of grisly comedy horrors ahoy. That was before Paul Thomas Anderson's splendidly psychotic romance Punch-Drunk Love proved that, beneath the gurning veneer of no-brainers such as The Waterboy and Happy Gilmore, Sandler possessed an alarmingly unpredictable talent. It's a seam that the writer/director James L Brooks mines (albeit with less success) in the muddled, middle-aged dramatic comedy Spanglish - the title denoting a cross- cultural hybrid of Spanish and English.

Sandler plays John Clasky, an up-and-coming LA restaurateur whose down-at-heel demeanour reflects years of hen-pecking by his neurotic wife, Deborah, played with hysterical bravado by Tea Leoni. Into their household comes a Mexican housekeeper, Flor (Paz Vega), a vision of dusky Hispanic charm whose inability to speak English - her Spanish is pointedly unsubtitled - merely emphasises her down-to-earth decency. Will Flor help the Claskys clean up the mess they've made of their family and convince their healthily proportioned daughter that having a mom who gives "aspirational" gifts of size 8 clothing is no reason to lose the will to live? Or will "nutty" Deborah hijack Flor's own precious moppet and turn her into a designer accessory for uppity American bitches?

Spanglish treads a thin line between well-observed social satire (Brooks's long-time forte, best exemplified in Broadcast News) and cringingly trite contriv-ance. While Sandler and Leoni seem to be acting in different films (downbeat domestic drama versus wacked-out suburban spoof), Cloris Leachman sneakily steals the show as the sozzled granny whose TV-sitcom-style asides ("Your low self-esteem is merely common sense") represent the true "heart" of this ultimately fickle film. As for Vega, after wowing audiences with her revealingly mercurial turn in the sensational Sex and Lucia, she is required to do little more than simper, strut and steam exotically in a manner that does her a grave disservice. There is no doubting Brooks's heartfelt enthusiasm for Flor, but in dramatic terms Vega has been dealt a dud hand, comically stripped of language and reduced to arm-waving and pantomime pouts wholly uncharacteristic of her evident screen talents.

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