Had she been holed up in a Hasidic community as an undercover cop, Michelle Pfeiffer could not inhabit a less appropriate neighborhood than she does in Dangerous Minds. This dopey drama about a former Marine who teaches high school English to a class of underprivileged underachievers, just out on video, is the latest addition to the Pfeiffer oeuvre. But it ain’t a keeper — not if you’re not fascinated by the sight of the exquisitely alluring, resourceful, and golden Pfeiffer winning the respect of her tough, colors-of-the-rainbow students (they call her ”white-bread” but come to love her) by demonstrating karate moves, teaching them Bob Dylan lyrics, and tossing chocolate bars around the classroom to reward good work as if she were feeding performing seals. The movie is based on the real experiences of LouAnne Johnson, and it’s directed by John N. Smith, who did not tolerate a single false note when he made the riveting Boys of St. Vincent. But with Pfeiffer almost defiantly miscast (and playing her part with far too much pluck and refinement for an ex-leatherneck), it is, perhaps, overstating the obvious to say that nothing about this brazenly packaged movie — one of the last high-concept megillahs produced by the late Don Simpson — rings honest for a schoolyard minute.
Pfeiffer deserves better material, or else she needs to make sharper career choices. She’s a grade-A movie queen — sexy, beautiful, possessed of the rare Hollywood quality of mystery. And to her extra credit, she is also possessed of acting talent that, in some of her best work — Tequila Sunrise, Dangerous Liaisons, and The Fabulous Baker Boys — can take your breath away.
Come to think of it, Tequila Sunrise is a fine place to watch the onetime star of Grease 2 insinuate herself into a dry-roasted nut of a story, dominated by big boys Kurt Russell and Mel Gibson, and make it her own. As a slim-skirted, elegant restaurant owner who melts into a love triangle with an L.A. cop (Russell) and his old drug-dealing friend and adversary (Gibson) on the beaches of Southern California, Pfeiffer displays for the first time what has become her signature character strength: the erotic thawing of a woman from attractive and reserved to aroused, arousing, and receptive — and from passive to powerful.
That arousability is even more potent in Dangerous Liaisons, which earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. As a devoutly religious and virtuous wife whose honor — and heart — are stolen by a calculating seducer (John Malkovich) in a high-stakes game of sexual one-upmanship with his bored, rich marquise friend (Glenn Close), Pfeiffer reveals an emotional nakedness that’s almost shocking. Never has she exposed so much and done it so simply. Who knew she could be this good? In great acting company, Pfeiffer is at her peak. She’s got soul as well as sensuality. She risks going for emotional truth, not just dramatic artifice. The payoff more than warrants the dare.
Here’s the equation for this cutie who carries with her such a deep reservoir of audience goodwill: The greater the acting risks she takes, the greater the rewards, for her as well as for us. (That’s why her participation in Dangerous Minds generates such a skimpy return. Like the Marines say, No guts, no Academy Award.) The politer a gal she portrays, the less interesting the results.
But when she lets loose — as she does in The Fabulous Baker Boys (her first Best Actress nomination) — she becomes a fabulous babe. It doesn’t take much coaxing for Pfeiffer’s hard-shelled nightclub singer to reveal a molten core in this satisfying romance; one verse of ”More Than You Know,” her audition song for the piano-playing brothers (Jeff and Beau Bridges) who hire her, and you know she’s a corker. But this time, who knew Pfeiffer was such a polished cabaret siren! Crooning pop standards in a procession of slinky dresses and glittery earrings, she transforms herself into a great cocktail of a girl. Slithering on a piano and wrapping herself around ”Makin’ Whoopee,” she’s Pfeiffer Unbound. You don’t want to take your eyes off her. Instead, you want to toss chocolate bars and cheer. Dangerous Minds: C; Tequila Sunrise: B; Dangerous Liaisons: A; The Fabulous Baker Boys: A-