A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
Having met Peter Greenaway, I find it easier to understand the tone of his films. Not a lighthearted man, he is cerebral, controlled, is so precise in his speech he seems to be dictating. "He talks like a university lecturer," I wrote after meeting him in 1991, "and gives the impression he would rather dine alone than suffer bores at his table." Yet there is an aggressive, almost violent, streak of comedy in his makeup; one can imagine him, like Hitchcock, springing practical jokes.
Consider a scene in "8 1/2 Women," his new film. It takes place in a staid Swiss cemetery. His hero, Philip Emmenthal (John Standing), is a billionaire who has just lost his beloved wife. He arrives at the services dressed in a white summer suit because his wife disliked dark clothing. He is informed that a black suit is absolutely required according to the bylaws.
Enraged, defiant, stubborn, Philip grimly strips down until he is standing naked on the gravel; observing the letter of the law, he demands even black underwear. He is surrounded by minions who lend him their own clothing--a black shirt, black tie, pants, coat, even underwear ("it looks like a swimming suit," its wearer explains, "and I was hoping to go swimming later"). His decision has forced his employees to strip as well, and now, dressed in black, he walks a few feet to one side and we see what we could not see before--that the preacher and all of the mourners were waiting nearby, in full view of everything.
Now how is this funny? Trying to imagine other kinds of comedies handling the material, I ran it through Monty Python, Steve Martin and Woody Allen before realizing it has its roots in Buster Keaton--whose favorite comic ploy was to overcome obstacles by applying pure logic and ignoring social conventions or taboos. Keaton would have tilted it more toward laughs, to be sure; Greenaway's humor always seems dour, and masks (not very well) a lot of hostility. But, yes, Keaton.