Rated PG-13 - Running time: 1:47 - Released 10/30/98

You've got to hand it to Kieran Culkin. Making Peter Chelsom's The Mighty seem like a thoughtful piece of cinema would be a difficult task for even the best actor, and yet he almost pulls it off. But the odds and the director are against him. Despite his valiant efforts, The Mighty is a cheesy, overdramatic tear-jerker full of transparent sentimentality and forced emotion. I don't know whether the novel (Freak The Mighty by Rodman Philbrick) was so drippy with pretense, but Charles Leavitt's screen adaptation of it surely is.

Culkin (little brother to Macaulay) plays Kevin Dillon, one of the two co-protagonists in this story about two kids who don't fit in until they find each other. Kevin, nicknamed "Freak," suffers from a disease that prevents his bones from growing in proportion to the rest of his body. He has a curved spine and walks with difficulty and crutches, but his brain is fully intact. A hero to his protective single mother (Sharon Stone), he's a genius compared to Max Kane (Elden Ratliff), an overweight outcast who lives with his grandparents (Harry Dean Stanton, Gena Rowlands) and seldom utters a word.

The boys find each other when Kevin is assigned as Max's reading tutor. He asks Max to read a chapter of the King Arthur story, and when Max balks, Kevin reads a bit to him. "Every word is part of a picture," he explains. "Every sentence is a picture." The two boys meet regularly to read, and eventually form a partnership, each making up for what the other lacks. With Max carrying Kevin on his shoulders, they adopt the credo "a knight proves his worthiness through his deeds," and begin living out heroic adventures as if they had a reserved seat at the round table.

But the story turns dark when Max's father (James Gandolfini), who has served several years in prison for murdering his wife (Max's mother), is released on parole. He kidnaps Max, and Kevin does his best to come to the rescue without the physical agility Max's large frame had afforded him.

The acting is good in this picture. The plot is fine. The problem lies in the execution. Every character is an extreme; there is no credible reality. This was intended by Leavitt to give a sense of subjectivity to the storybook Max is writing — he quotes the chapter title before each new scene — but it fails because all other aspects are presented realistically. Chelsom stages one overdramatic moment after another, with loads of pretentious closeups to make sure we get the emotional point, and tries to pass this off as the way life really is.

If this is supposed to be a subjective story told through Max's oversensitive psyche, then Chelsom needs to show us the difference between that and reality. If it's supposed to be reality, then Leavitt's characters are too cartooney to be believed. ***

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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