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‘The Next Three Days’ / ‘On Tour’

The art of getting what you want

by Giovanni Fazio

They say you can never really know someone completely, even if that person is the spouse you’ve been married to for years. Trading on the suspense potential of that notion is “The Next Three Days,” director Paul Haggis’ U.S.-remake of 2008′s French thriller “Pour Elle,” a fine film in its own right.

Russell Crowe plays John Brennan, a laid-back high school teacher who’s a good foil for his high-maintenance wife, Lara (Elizabeth Banks). When the police burst into their home one fine morning and arrest Lara on suspicion of murdering her boss, Brennan’s world is turned upside down. He struggles to make sense of the situation, caring for their son, Luke (Ty Simpkins), and hiring lawyers. When Lara is convicted and all appeals are exhausted, Brennan starts to consider ways of springing her that aren’t exactly legal.

The film stays tightly focused on this angle: Just how would an average sort of clueless suburban husband go about planning a jailbreak, and could he pull it off? A tavern-counter meeting with a seasoned ex-con (Liam Neeson) arms Brennan with the info he needs to free his wife, but the criminal also tells him to think twice, asking whether he could abandon his child at a bus station or push an old lady to the ground. “To do this thing, that’s what you have to become.”

Crowe, looking a bit doughy and visibly trembling when he first gets involved with the street criminals who have what he needs, plays against type for much of the film before manning up for the film’s climax; Banks is prickly and not exactly sympathetic — you’ll spend the whole film wondering whether she did it or not, whether Brennan is correct in his trust in her, or whether love truly is blind. Unfortunately, Haggis diverges from the original to spell this all out in the final reel, eliminating the delicious doubt which marked “Pour Elle,” and which may have been its entire point.

‘On Tour” is French actor/director Mathieu Amalric’s attempt to make a John Cassavetes movie, rather specifically “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie,” with himself in the Ben Gazzara role (and without the killing). The film won Amalric the Best Director award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and while there is a likable atmosphere of world-weary, nicotine-stained, dead-end venue showmanship, the story (also by Amalric, and three other credited writers) is tissue-thin and struggles to find any sort of momentum.

Amalric, who slips into his role like a comfortable old pullover, plays a hard-luck producer who’s brought a bevy of American burlesque performers back to France with him for a tour of the nation’s seedier ports; Paris, conspicuously, is not on the itinerary. He spends much of his time hustling, screaming into his cellphone, and calling in favors to try to score more gigs. About all you need to know about this guy is the way he can pick up his kids from his ex-wife (whom he hasn’t seen in years) for some quality time together, and then take them to KFC, where he asks his son to hold his cellphone up to his ear so he can work and eat at the same time.

Playing alongside Amalric are a bunch of actual new-burlesque performers, who pretty much play themselves. With their bottle-blonde hair, tattoos, curvy figures and cocktail-lounge stage names such as Mimi le Meaux or Kitten on the Keys, the women are of a type: hard-drinking, aggressive and enamored of kitsch and camp. Those expecting the smoking-hot eroticism of a performer like Dita Von Teese will be disappointed, though: The performances here are more like drag-queen acts with female female impersonators. (Indeed, the roly-poly Dirty Martini bears more than a passing resemblance to 1970s drag superstar Divine.)

“On Tour” does a good job of capturing the camaraderie of the road, with the bonds, tensions, and romances that develop when you’re stuck in the same hotel rooms for weeks on end. Yet the basic problem with this film is apparent when you hold it up next to, say, “Crazy Heart,” another film about a performing career on the verge of going down the chute. That film worked due to Jeff Bridges’ ability to hook the audience, even at his scuzziest; Amalric remains somewhat aloof, from the viewer and from the rest of his cast, none of whom really seem to connect with him. For a film about sultry performance, “On Tour” is more than a little lacking in passion.