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ENIGMA Although equally responsible for the repellent Enough, director Michael Apted puts his considerable talents to better use with Enigma, a wartime thriller centered around the complex code the Germans used during World War II and the British masterminds who tried cracking it. Dougray Scott stars as Tom Jericho, a codebreaker who, after suffering a mental breakdown (coincidentally, he looks like Russell Crowe playing a similarly disturbed genius in A Beautiful Mind), returns to help decipher the latest garbled transmissions while simultaneously searching for the woman (Saffron Burrows) who broke his heart and, not incidentally, also might have been a traitor working for the Nazis. Jericho is aided in his investigation by the woman's roommate (Kate Winslet), but his every move is tracked by a government agent (Jeremy Northam) who may always be one step ahead, or behind, him (Jericho can't tell for sure). U-571 also employed an Enigma machine in its plot (and, of course, the Americans got credit for its capture in that film, though history dictates otherwise), but that silly sub drama doesn't compare to this film, which unfolds just as a smart thriller should. All of the performances are excellent, though Northam stands out as the faux-friendly agent: It's the type of role generally played with a touch of romanticism (think Claude Rains in Casablanca), but Northam shrewdly never suggests that there's any trace of a soft heart at the center of this tough character.

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST Time for an English quiz: Oscar Wilde's immortal play may deserve its lofty reputation, but because it's so stridently stagebound in origin, writer-director Oliver Parker (An Ideal Husband) has elected to open up the piece by doing everything except a) chop a radical amount of Wilde's wonderful dialogue; b) have Lady Bracknell (Judi Dench) and Miss Prism (Anna Massey) involved in a chase straight out of a cheesy Carry On comedy; c) add a scene in which Gwendolen (Frances O'Connor) gets the name "Ernest" tattooed on her buttocks; d) include a sequence in which the Green Goblin crashes British high society. If you answered d), you'd be correct, but considering Parker's other modifications, would the existence of such a sequence really seem that radical? Yet because the play's the thing, it's impossible to completely screw up this tale of mistaken identity -- as a result, the movie offers some pleasures through Wilde's way with words and the skills of the actors mouthing them. As Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing, the two men who both adopt the moniker of Ernest in an attempt to woo their ladies (Reese Witherspoon and O'Connor), Rupert Everett and Colin Firth make ideal leads, while Dench offers her usual poison-pen delivery as the no-nonsense Lady Bracknell. Parker's direction and script are needlessly fussy, but thanks to his source material, he's like an artist working with a net, unable to do complete harm to himself or to others. 1/2


ABOUT A BOY John Wayne often played cowboys, while Clint Eastwood frequently portrays detectives. So when Hugh Grant once again turns on his ample "aw, shucks" neon charms to play a suave, occasionally self-effacing bachelor whose rakish demeanor and liquid mercury eyes (they practically blink, "Please rest this adorable head in your lap") are instant turn-ons to the women surrounding him, there's no reason to jeer. When given the (rare) chance, the man has shown he can do other things, but who can blame him for returning to the field that suits him best? Especially when he's able to offer slight variations on a theme, thereby keeping his characterizations fresh and funny? That's certainly the case with this thoroughly entertaining comedy that uses Grant's own twist of acidity to prevent itself from succumbing to its own bathos. Grant's character, Will Freeman, is the ultimate in Slacker Chic: a hip, 38-year-old Londoner whose inheritance insures he'll never have to hold a job a day in his life. In other words, Will is no work and all play -- this includes spending lots of time wooing and then dumping women. But his ill-advised plan of targeting single mothers because they're more vulnerable takes an unexpected twist when it leads to his acquaintance of Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), a 12-year-old boy with no friends, a lousy wardrobe and a suicidal hippie mom (Toni Collette). Will and Marcus predictably teach each other some valuable life lessons, but what isn't so predictable is the unassuming manner in which the movie goes about its business, with plenty of charm and sincerity.

HOLLYWOOD ENDING It used to be that the annual arrival of the latest Woody Allen movie was like receiving an additional Christmas present; these days, it feels more like being asked to stay after school for detention. At its core, Hollywood Ending features an ingenious comic hook, the best one Allen's come up with in years: Relate the adventures of a has-been director who's suddenly struck blind just as he begins shooting his comeback picture. It's a marvelous premise, and imagine the possibilities had Allen been blessed with this idea back in the mid-70s. Instead, this farcical mother lode gets largely wasted here, with Allen recycling gags so moldy you half-expect one of those giant hooks so popular in vaudeville halls to enter the frame and yank him right off the screen. The actors can't be faulted -- Tea Leoni, Treat Williams and Debra Messing all perform to the best of their limiting roles -- and Allen does manage to zip off an occasional zinger that proves some of those nyuk-nyuk instincts are still operational. But even with a final denouement that's deliciously apt, too much of Hollywood Ending feels like the work of a man who still loves the job but may no longer possess all the skills necessary to turn out top product.

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