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Nicholas Nickleby

Young Nicholas' family loses all their money in the stock market. Seeking to somehow get by, the surviving members try to sell their home (though nobody wants it) and move to the big city. There they hope for pity from their uncle, a successful stockbroker who colludes with his wealthy cronies in backroom deals that tend to break families like The Nicklebys.

Sure, it might just as well be called Enron America, but Nicholas Nickleby is actually a mid-19th Century novel by Charles Dickens. Former SNL writer Douglas McGrath has managed to rip through to the book's very heart, creating a breezy but topical film that proves to be one of the last gems of 2002. (Okay, so it's opening in 2003, but really, it still counts.)

Aside from its timeliness, the film captures bits of everything that makes Dickens a much-read (and much copied) author: great characterization, great dialogue, and great plot. In many ways, Dickens shares a sensibility with David Lynch. Though Nicholas Nickleby doesn't venture into the dream realm, it has just a firm grasp on the psychology of society, and more than its share of grotesques.

"I've just been nominated to head the SEC!"
McGrath has actually toned that down a bit, making cartoonish figures into believable characters. The most outrageous casting comes by using Barry Humphries (aka Dame Edna Everage) as Mrs. Crummles, the ultimate stage mother. To give Humphries equal time, he also gets a male role later in the film, as twin to Timothy Spall. Somehow, both roles work without calling attention to their gimmickiness. When casting Dickens, that's no small feat.

A sprawling novel (and a nine and a half hour stage play), the movie version whips through a basic storyline of young Nicholas' (Charlie Hunnam) efforts to find fortune and family. After appealing to his wicked Uncle Ralph (Christopher Plummer) for a job, he ends up as an assistant schoolmaster to the one-eyed Wackford Squeers (Jim Broadbent).

At Dotheboys Hall, Nicholas struggles to shine light and hope on the otherwise abused students, making friends with the crippled Smike (Jamie Bell). Together, the two escape to adventure, ultimately reuniting the Nickleby family, finding love and sorrow, and proving that good conquers evil.

What keeps the film's morality from being cut and dried is its acknowledgment (straight from Dickens) that it's never so simple. (Though Nicholas believes it is.) Good people are often, to put it bluntly, dorks. And Plummer clearly plays Ralph Nickleby as a man not so much evil as unaware of the ramifications of his selfishness. Though he pursues it whole-heartedly, seeing the consequences bothers him all along the way.

Spot the drag queen.
If there is a stumbling block to enjoying this film, it comes in Hunnam's performance as Nicholas. Completely earnest, Hunnam borders on playing only one note. As a result, the times when Nicholas explodes in anger come out of nowhere. A ridiculously handsome actor, Hunnam used his looks to better effect on last year's TV series Undeclared. In hindsight, what should have been a seething build-up in this movie looks more like a Tiger Beat pout. Of all the actors, Hunnam also has the most difficult time delivering the Victorian dialogue without sounding like recitation.

It's a shame, really, because McGrath wisely lifts huge chunks of Dickens' rich prose for his own screenplay. Beginning with a profound yet hammy introduction by Nathan Lane, he lets Dickens speak for himself, which in turn gives the cast huge clues as to their characterization. Upon Ralph's introduction, his sister-in-law pleads for pity, as her husband has just died. He responds that husbands die every day. Nicholas shoots back, "as do brothers," trying to dig into his uncle's black heart. Coolly, Plummer responds, "as do puppies." It's an exchange that rings as one of the most incisive of the year.

There's still plenty of room for cynicism in the movies. But every now and then, it's cool to see a movie completely devoid of it, as long as it's done more than competently. Nicholas Nickleby achieves that mark, and more.

Coming from McGrath, who admits in press notes that his year on SNL was "…incontestably the worst year in the show's history," the film proves that talent will eventually rise. I'm still waiting for Joe Piscopo's magnum opus, though.

What's It Worth? $8.50

Obsessive Fanboy Point: Nicholas Nickleby features Alan Cumming in the small but crucial role of Mr. Folair, an actor obsessed with getting the chance to do his specialty, "The Highland Fling." Cumming will be seen later this year as Nightcrawler in X-Men 2.

Derek McCaw

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