The third Batman epic, with Val Kilmer replacing Michael Keaton as the Caped Crusader and Jim Carrey out-mugging Jack Nicholson’s Joker as the rascally Riddler, is a long way from the dark poetry of Tim Burton’s 1989 original. This 1995 version has cleaned up its act. It had to. Audiences, not just the Dole contingent, were turned off by Burton’s grim and disjointed 1992 sequel, Batman Returns. Except for Michelle Pfeiffer’s whip-smart and sexy Catwoman, it left a sour taste. Batman Forever, with Joel Schumacher (The Client) in for Burton as director, goes easy on the mayhem and doesn’t dwell on our hero’s pesky depressive side. Instead, the new film catches the campy innocence of the Batman TV series of the ’60s. Schumacher’s method is to use a lighter touch, to stay closer to the cartoon that Bob Kane created for DC Comics in 1939 and to temper Burton’s nightmare world with an accessible, brightly colored TV palette.
Schumacher keeps the movie spinning like a pinwheel; it’s a thrill-packed joy ride that knocks itself out to please — so much so that it often threatens to collapse from plot overload. Batman and his billionaire alter ego, Bruce Wayne, get a new love interest, Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman); a partner in crime fighting, Robin (Chris O’Donnell); and two adversaries, the Riddler (Jim Carrey) and Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones), both with split personalities. To add to the doppelgänger motif, Two-Face hangs with a pair of sexpot sidekicks named Sugar (Drew Barrymore) and Spice (Debi Mazar), tosses a coin disfigured on one side and uses a chopper to split Gotham City’s Statue of Liberty in two. There is also a new array of what the Joker calls wonderful toys, including a Batmobile that climbs walls and a Batwing that morphs into a Batsub.
Things start, aptly enough, with an easy laugh. Dressing for action, Batman is stopped by his loyal butler, Alfred (the wonderfully sly Michael Gough). “Could I persuade you to take along a sandwich, sir?” Alfred pleads. “I’ll get drive-through,” replies Batman. Yes, your worst fears are true: The scene is used on TV ads for McDonald’s new superhero sandwich.
Don’t puke. For all the homogenizing, Batman Forever still gets in its licks. There’s no fun machine this summer that packs more surprises. Sure, there’s a lot missing: “Batman Forever” is more cheery than haunting. The violence, being cartoony and affectless, has no weight or consequence — something the moral finger pointers mysteriously think is a good thing. In rushing to the gags, the script — by Akiva Goldsman and the husband-and-wife team of Lee Batchler and Janet Scott Batchler — misses the pain Burton caught in a man tormented by the long-ago murder of his parents. Young Bruce is shown in flashbacks reacting to the crime, but a despairing tone never gets the upper hand, not in this movie.
Still, the Dark Knight hasn’t sold his soul to Disney or Dole just yet. Subversive humor keeps bubbling under the surface. Schumacher, a former clothing designer, has a sharp, witty eye that adds immeasurably to the film’s high-style playfulness. And he brings out the sass in the actors. The gorgeous Kidman tackles the role of Chase, a psychologist hot for Batman, with tart mischief. He admires her books on split personalities. “It’s not every author who makes a superhero’s night table,” says the flirty doc. Chase later uses the Bat signal as a date beeper. “It’s the car, right?” asks Batman in disbelief. “Chicks love the car.”
Actually, Chase is fascinated by the mystery man who drives it. Setting up
And so does every major character in the movie. Take Robin, an acrobat known as Dick Grayson until Two-Face kills his circus family. Befriended by Bruce, who clearly sympathizes with a kid who watched his parents gunned down, Dick is suspicious when his benefactor offers shelter and a chance to work on Wayne’s Harley motorcycles. “Hang out in a lot of bike bars, Bruce?” he asks.
O’Donnell, looking buff in his buzz cut and ear stud, gets to show more sexual bravado than allowed by his straight-arrow roles in Scent of a Woman, Circle of Friends and Mad Love. Attitude looks good on him, especially when he learns that Bruce is really Batman and boosts the Batmobile for a spin downtown. Out cruising, he adopts a Latino-hipster mode: “Ju want to take a ride in my love machine, bay-bay?” O’Donnell’s exuberant performance gives the film a lift.
Prudish watchdogs, take note: Batman Forever isn’t as innocent as it looks. “Who’s your tailor?” asks Batman, eyeing the Robin costume’s built-in nipples and outsize crotch pouch that match his own.
If Kilmer isn’t given the chance Keaton had to plumb Batman’s dark side, he manages — even under a cowl — to bring a welcome comic edge to a deeply conflicted character. In one scene, after Chase tells Batman it’s Bruce she loves, Kilmer turns quickly to flash a goofball grin at the camera that is utterly disarming. It’s a deftly understated performance.
And a marked contrast to the villains of the piece. Jones’ turn as Harvey “Two-Face” Dent makes his wildman warden in Natural Born Killers look like a sleepy walk-through. As Harvey Dent — the former district attorney turned schizophrenic outlaw after mobsters disfigured half his face, scabbing it the color of magenta — Jones starts so high on the hog he has nowhere to go. He’s a kick at first, vowing vengeance on the man he calls “that pointy-eared, steroid-eating, rubber-suited, cross-dressing night rat.” Jones is a superb actor in high gear (Cobb) or low (Blue Sky), but there’s a perspiring, mechanical effort to his Two-Face that brings diminishing returns. He has done everything to intimate comedy without actually being able to deliver it.
It’s Jim Carrey who brings home the hilarity in large and continuous doses. His Riddler is spontaneous comic combustion, the spark that sets the film ablaze. We meet him first as Ed Nygma, the computer nerd who works for Wayne Enterprises. When Bruce cites ethical reasons for rejecting Ed’s invention for stealing brain waves, the nerd goes on a rampage. He bludgeons the office supervisor with a coffeepot (“Caffeine’ll kill ya”), turns himself into the Riddler — after trying names like the Puzzler and Captain Kill — and joins with Two-Face (“Your face will never heal if you don’t stop picking”) to solve the riddle of them all: Who is Batman?
They find out soon enough, prompting Carrey to make uproarious and artful displays of physical comedy that equal his acclaimed work in The Mask. Entering the Batcave, the cane-twirling Riddler — in a skintight bodysuit covered with question marks — breaks up the place, squealing, “Spank me!” every time he blows another Bat toy to bits. Stephen Goldblatt’s otherwise exemplary cinematography can be faulted only for framing Carrey too tightly. This kind of liquid body language needs room to flow. “Was that over the top?” the Riddler asks after pulling a wicked stunt. “I can never tell.” The line might as well be Carrey speaking to his critics. Hammered for the crudities of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Dumb and Dumber, Carrey continues to play by his own rules. The message is, If you don’t like it, spank me.
Let’s hope Dole is listening. As a movie, Batman Forever is in and out but wins in the end by staying true to its unbridled comic spirit. Spank me, indeed.