November 18, 1996 12:00 PM

Nick Nolte, Sheryl Lee, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Kirsten Dunst

Squirrelly, strikingly original and utterly fascinating, this spy thriller-comedy-fantasy won’t make anyone laugh out loud or sweat from its fast-paced action, but it will make a lot of people think. Adapted from Kurt Vonnegut’s characteristically eccentric 1961 novel, the movie is full of moral choices, black humor and conundrums that double back on themselves. Nolte is an American playwright who was raised in Germany because his father worked there. During World War II, the father made propaganda broadcasts to the U.S., à la Tokyo Rose, though he was really an American agent. As the movie begins, he is being arrested in Israel in 1961 to go on trial for war crimes, and the rest of the story flashes back to Germany and Nolte’s postwar life in New York City.

Nolte broods movingly most of the time, pausing to marry Lee, a German actress, banter with Goodman, his spy mentor, and later, in New York, confront artist neighbor Arkin, a neo-Nazi supporter.

Director Keith Gordon nearly lets Vonnegut’s affection for the surreal carry off the movie. Ghosts appear, Nolte begins chatting with the disembodied voice of Adolf Eichmann, and what was a linear tale takes on elements of Alice in Wonderland. Puzzles can be intriguing, though, and that’s what this movie is: a complex puzzle in which illusions are as important as reality. Like the underappreciated 1972 film Slaughterhouse-Five, from another Vonnegut novel, this one takes a little work to enjoy. There is, however, something to be said for earned pleasures. (R)

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