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What they're not going to tell you about Erick Zonca's Julia is how terribly funny it is. Never has there been movie in which one of the most terrible things that happens is that you can't help laughing. It is so wrong to laugh at the people whose competence has been impaired by prolonged alcohol abuse, especially when they're committing felonies involving children. Especially when they appear to regard cigarette smoking as nutritious.

It is so wrong to laugh at a woman who has replaced her self-respect with vulgar opportunism. But how can you help laughing, if, every time she screws up her eyes, points her cigarette at someone and tries to explain "how it is," the actress impersonating her channels a legendary comedienne to whom she does not, ordinarily, bear much of a resemblance? The very idea of Tilda Swinton "doing" Lucy Ricardo sets my pulse racing. It would be like Faye Dunaway doing Mildred Pierce, only a thousand times more intense. It would be as terrifying as Godot's showing up.

Julia is a bastard half-sibling of countless popular American comedies aimed at young men, movies in which heedless, feckless, and foolish anti-heroes expose themselves and others to grievous bodily harm. That they are never seriously hurt only underscores their need for a wake-up call. Drunk and/or drugged, they get behind the wheel and charge off on preposterous, misguided missions. John Belushi starred in as many of them as his short life permitted. Last year's Pineapple Express had (in retrospect) quite a number of Julia moments, but it dealt with near-catastrophe by winking at it. The strange final scene at the diner, with Danny R McBride's surprising return to life, suggested that we weren't meant to take its dangers seriously. All through the movie, though, Seth Rogen's Dale Denton grasped at recognizable common sense. Julia Harris (Ms Swinton) is so addled by self-abuse that she has wrought common sense itself into utter uselessness.

Although the film hasn't come up much in reviews of Julia, I was often reminded of The Deep End,, a beautiful blackmail caper in which Ms Swinton played the wife of an aircraft carrier captain who lived on Lake Tahoe with her three children and her father-in-law. Margaret Hall was leading a life of quiet desperation when she learned that her elder son, a promising trumpeter, was consorting with the smarmy owner of a gay bar. Thanks to a chain of mishaps, Margaret soon found herself in a very tight spot indeed, obliged to make a turnip bleed in order to pay off some heavies to whom the gay bar guy owed money. Margaret's need to think fast, while concealing her panic from her family, made her almost unbearably sympathetic, at least in Ms Swinton's hands. I thought of all this because Julia Harris has to think fast, too; like Margaret Hall, she is in over her head. But in contrast to Margaret, who makes the most of what chances are thrown her way, Julia's half-baked recklessness always creates new problems, obvious to everyone but herself. And yet it is her own cluelessness — the correlative of the drunkard's damage-minimizing looseness in a fall — that floats her through each new disaster. A normal person would acknowledge her inadequacy and give up. Not Julia Harris. Julia is Bad Lucy. But Bad Lucy is still Funny Lucy, even if the laughter has a different feel.

Julia is likely to be seen as a vehicle for Tilda Swinton's star turn, not least because who else but an actress making a star turn would allow herself to be so relentlessly photographed  as a shambolic mess. (Although the actress has one of the most distinctive faces in cinema, I did not recognize her in her first appearance.) But there is more to the film than that. Mr Zonca's screenplay (written with Michael Collins and Camille Natta) demonstrates the wildly open-ended nature of what might happen when a closed-down mind attempts something out of the ordinary: anything. And for this reason almost every frame of Julia, including each one that makes us laugh, is terrifying, especially once Aidan Gould, playing a little boy called Tom, comes on the scene. Tom's mother (Kate del Castillo), who happens to be Julia's neighbor, wants to kidnap Tom, who lives with his rich grandfather, and run off to Mexico. Julia declines to assist this hare-brained scheme at first, but when it sprouts golden possibilities in her addled mind, she signs on, with, of course, her own hidden agenda. You won't stop worrying about Tom's safety until the end. Mr Gould is to be praised for his convincing performance as a winning but genuine eight year-old. Too often, endangered children are presented in the movies as either terrified or too knowing. Mr Gould's Tom is realistically confused by what's happening to him. He and Ms Swinton have great chemistry — which is saying something, when you think how often she ties him up and slaps duct tape across his mouth. (Even this manages to be funny, at least with repetition.)

Rather than risk spoiling the suspense of watching Julia (which intensifies, by running parallel to, the suspense of following the story), I propose two simple tests. In the first, you will sweat along with Julia as she works up the nerve to shoot someone. (She is so inexperienced and out of control that she might well shoot herself instead.) At the last minute, she strikes on an alternative to shooting. As the victim screams, you will probably not laugh, but, if you do, you're on this movie's wavelength. By the time the second test arrives, you ought to be prepared. Julia, driving across the desert in a mad attempt to escape pursuing helicopters, SWAT teams, and whatnot, suddenly realizes that it is too late to avoid driving straight into a wall. OMG! Collision at speed! I'm not saying another word.

Aside from Mr Gould, Ms Swinton is nicely supported by the estimable Saul Rubinek, as Julia's AA sponsor, as well as by Ms del Castillo. Bruno Bichir, Horacio García Rojas, Eugene Byrd, and the uncredited actor who plays Tom's bodyguard are all strong enough to remind us that Julia is not a one-woman show. (May 2009)

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