Published August 1, 1999
The Thomas Crown Affair, a remake by John McTiernan of the classic of 1968 which starred Steve McQueen, is what I like to call a designer movie. True, it is also a cleverly conceived heist caper whose interesting premiss is that a rich man, the eponymous Mr. Crown (Pierce Brosnan), in search of excitement will turn art thief just to see if he can defeat the security system at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — and then put the stolen painting (a Monet said to be worth $100 million) back on the museum wall in an even more clever and daring exercise in thumbing his nose at authority. Yet that exercise conveys little of the excitement for which the hero presumably undertakes it — because it is really only a part of the film’s larger purpose, which is simply to look as cool as possible.
To some extent, this was also true of the original, as the casting of Steve McQueen might suggest. Hollywood’s great Mr. Cool in the 1960s, McQueen foreshadowed the movie stars of our own time, whose job is usually to strike attitudes, like models, rather than to act — which would imply characters who are more complete human beings than we commonly encounter in the movies. The early James Bond films were also prefigurings of the designer movie of today, and it is no accident that the present Bond should have been chosen to take the McQueen role in the remake. Mr Brosnan is undoubtedly the most male-modelish of all the stars in the 90s firmament, and so is just what is wanted here.
This is a movie which must be watched as you watch a particularly slick TV commercial or (better) in the spirit in which you pass your eye over a glossy magazine ad for Scotch whisky or watches or luxury cars or perfume or some designer label of clothing. At its most dramatically convincing it rises to the level of a music video. The love interest, Catherine Banning (Rene Russo), an insurance investigator who is the Javert to his Valjean, knows that he stole the painting and is willing to sleep with him to get it back. But she, too, is the captive of cool, which wrecks the potential moral drama in which she finds herself seduced not only by the man but by his moral outlook on the world as a private playground.
For this is also the moral outlook of the film’s makers, and if the lovely Catherine has any scruples to countervail against the overwhelming appeal of elopement with her billionaire, we must simply take them for granted, for we never see what they are. From the beginning, neither she nor we are allowed to take in anything but pretty pictures of beautiful people doing the things rich and leisured people do, and with a style that only money can buy. Mr Crown sails; he glides; he dances (beautifully) with stunningly gorgeous young women at fantastically ritzy balls. His business, like his recreations, is conducted without tedium or failure, and even his alleged love of the Monet is really more for the money. Art is just a particularly high-priced accessory.
In the original, the ending at least allowed for some sense of the ironies of ambition in the case of Catherine — there played by Faye Dunaway (who appears in the new version in a useless role as Crown’s shrink—another accessory). The remake changes the ending and so ruins any more serious purpose the film might otherwise have had. The real heart of this movie comes on the morning after the couple have consummated their passion in a sex scene meant to suggest not real feeling or intimacy but sexual champagne and caviar. As they sit in their hotel-style white terrycloth robes at breakfast on the balcony of Crown’s sumptuous Manhattan residence, Catherine says to him, simply, “You live well.” And, equally simply, he thanks her. In this world it is the ultimate compliment. But it is not a statement which can be believed, I am afraid, by anyone whose idea of living well comes from anywhere other than a glossy magazine.