Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
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In 1989, 2 Live Crew's As Nasty As They Wanna Be joined the ranks of Ulysses, Naked Lunch, Tropic Of Cancer, and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita by sparking what would eventually turn into arguably the last great, non-Internet-related American censorship battle of the 20th century. The forces of civil liberties prevailed, and most everyone felt good about the whole thing when it was over. The only problem was that a lot of people felt good about the victory even if many secretly resented having to go to bat for something like Nasty instead of something with slightly more artistic merit, such as, say, Eazy E's Eazy-Duz-It. Flash forward a few years to another issue of censorship, this one a good deal trickier. When Adrian Lyne decided to film Lolita, many people's first response was, "Too bad." Best known for trashy, shallow, hot-button movies like 9 1/2 Weeks, Fatal Attraction, and Indecent Proposal, Lyne wasn't likely to pull it off. Re-edited to conform to strict anti-child-pornography laws (themselves questionable when something like The Tin Drum gets prosecuted), Lolita then encountered a different kind of censorship. Though it was a big-budget film with a well-known cast (Jeremy Irons, Frank Langella, and Melanie Griffith among them), a profitable director, and a success overseas, Lolita couldn't find a distributor in America, each of them scared off by the subject matter's profitability in an increasingly conservative sexual climate. Its premiere on Showtime earlier this year and its appearance in select theaters represents a minor triumph in a battle that virtually no one was fighting. After all, who could anyone so inclined fight? Unfortunately, if they had, they would have been fighting for something closer in merit to the music of 2 Live Crew than the Nabokov novel that bears the same name. While it's good to have the chance to see Lolita, Lyne has made a film very much of a piece with his best-known work. Not that it's as flashy and exploitative as something like Indecent Proposal, but it's trashy in a manner that's offensive in its own way. Lyne doesn't seem to get the novel, failing to incorporate any of Nabokov's black comedy—which is to say, Lolita's heart and soul. It doesn't help that Irons delivers a performance that's pretty much interchangeable with his other decadent European characters. In the hands of Lyne and Irons, Humbert Humbert becomes a melancholy romantic whose infatuation with the eponymous underage girl (Dominique Swain), changed here from 12 to 14 years old, is tragic in a much simpler sense than imagined by Nabokov or rendered in Stanley Kubrick's 1962 version. The problem begins in the first scene, which takes the protagonist's ridiculous, simplistic justification for his predilection at face value. Worse yet, the film is deadly dull, redeemed only by a feel for period detail and a terrific performance by Swain, who really gets at the complexities of her character. Otherwise, Irons' and Swain's back-country road trip into despair and disillusionment feels as big as America and twice as dry. Still, it could have been worse, and buying a ticket for Lolita is sort of like supporting freedom of expression, even if no one is listening. Viewers may feel the limits of their own tolerance tested by the appearance, late in the film, of Frank Langella's penis.