It’s generally a bad sign when an actress shows up in a period film wearing a Louise Brooks hairdo. That mythic flapper helmet is so modern it still seems ahead of its time, yet movies tend to use it as a glib shortcut to dramatizing that the woman in question is the ultimate free spirit. Still, when Charlize Theron, in Head in the Clouds, arrived on screen in a blond variation on the Brooks bob, her eyes a-twinkle, her voice a singsong of carnal merriment, I thought, How perfect! If Brooks, the great siren of silent cinema, had been a vamp icon of the sound era, this is how she would have moved, flirted, and talked.
If only Theron had been given something interesting to say. Head in the Clouds is set in Paris and London in the ’30s and ’40s, and Theron, as Gilda Bessé, a rich-girl libertine who takes her men any way she can, makes a ravishing sophisto pleasure seeker. The movie, however, is wooden and endless; it’s like Cabaret without the cabaret. The moment that Gilda spies Guy (Stuart Townsend), an Irish-born student at Cambridge, she practically licks his face with her eyes, and from that point on these two are destined to come at each other like wildcats, even as their opposing temperaments tear them apart. Penélope Cruz, limited as usual by her pip-squeak voice, is on hand too as Gilda’s roommate and secret lover. How hot is that? Not. As for Guy, he can’t stop talking about the Spanish civil war, and he then goes off to fight in it. He’s a political idealist, a man who cares about justice more than love. He is, to put it bluntly, a big bore. Stuart Townsend, Theron’s reallife boyfriend, may have inner fires as an actor that have yet to be revealed, but in Head in the Clouds he’s a somber puppy who looks as if Theron could eat him alive. I wish she had.