Without question, Charlize Theron gave an unforgettable performance in Monster, but was it the right kind of unforgettable? Uglied up in pancake makeup, false teeth, and extra cellulite, Theron brought a towering presence to the role of Aileen Wuornos, the Florida streetwalker dubbed "the first female serial killer." Nick Broomfield's two Wuornos documentaries reveal her as a wide-eyed, unrepentant, and often belligerent character, but Theron's performance is like a tornado, consuming everything (including the movie) in its destructive path. As in The Devil's Advocate, in which she's called upon to scream and cry at every turn, Theron craves the upper registers, but doesn't hit the subtler grace notes below. The actor's equivalent to Celine Dion, she strangles songs and wins awards for her efforts.
Now graduated into an elite classat least until she finds her CatwomanTheron enjoys a feast of actorly moments in Head In The Clouds, a soapy wartime melodrama that watches her swing from free-spirited flirt to noble sufferer. True to style, she relishes playing the two extremes, but skips the crucial transformation. Playing a modern woman born into extravagant wealth and equally extravagant dysfunction, Theron finds a stabilizing force in Stuart Townsend, a working-class Irish student at Cambridge in 1933. Their divergent backgrounds make them an odd match in more ways than one, with the brazen, promiscuous Theron casting a long shadow over the straitlaced, politically conscious Townsend. Shortly after the couple welcomes fellow bohemian Penélope Cruz into their Paris loft, the Spanish Civil War breaks out, beckoning Townsend and Cruz to battle the fascists as soldier and nurse, respectively. Stubbornly apolitical, Theron shuns them for getting involved and holes up in occupied France, where she takes up with a Nazi officer.
Written and directed by John Duigan, whose career has slipped in the decade since his sweet coming-of-age films The Year My Voice Broke and Flirting, Head In The Clouds conveys an air of seriousness when dealing with Theron's slumbering conscience. But the film feels more at home with sex than war, like a romance novel where the swinging lovers find their passions stirred by bombs exploding in the distance. Their three-way dalliances are so frivolous and silly that once the action turns dark, Duigan and his cast leave audiences unprepared for the emotional fallout. Theron's theatrics do nothing to compensate for the missing gravitas, though not for lack of trying.