- The Washington Times - Monday, May 8, 2000

''I've stopped growing," complains Kim Basinger as the heroine of "I Dreamed of Africa," confiding to Eva Marie Saint as her patient, long-suffering mother.

Miss Basinger also seems to have stopped breathing during much of this solemn and fatuous vanity production, a scenic but oppressive tear-jerker.

Intended to glorify an often somnolent Hollywood matron as a gritty, resourceful Bwana Lady of Italian extraction, "I Dreamed" would appear to trivialize its biographical source, a best-selling memoir by an Italian woman named Kuki Gallmann, who survived recurrent family tragedies after immigrating to Kenya to homestead on a cattle ranch with her second husband, Paolo, and young son (by a previous marriage) Emanuele, Ema for short.

Although the time frame remains hazy, Mrs. Gallmann suggests a contemporary variation on the Karen Blixen of "Out of Africa," who rated a far more skillful and accomplished acting instrument 15 years ago in Meryl Streep.

Despite her recent Academy Award, for posing as a melancholy Hollywood trollop in "L.A. Confidential," Miss Basinger still suggests a scared amateur rather than a seasoned actress.

Her expressive style, to use the word loosely, remains better suited to magazine illustration than moving imagery. In moments where you suspect that she must be thinking extra hard about an emotion, she can be awesomely dull.

That alternative looks merciful during the interludes in "I Dreamed" where emotion needs to overpower her, particularly during two different excruciating funeral orations.

If this isn't a DOA tear-jerker, it won't be for lack of self-defeating gestures.

It might be amusing to compare the male-female differential in audiences for "Gladiator" and "I Dreamed of Africa" this weekend. One would anticipate steep tilts in opposite directions. The casting in both movies is memorably capricious.

Though set in ancient Rome, "Gladiator" cannot find a single principal role suitable for an Italian. "I Dreamed" tries to pass off Miss Basinger, Miss Saint and the Spaniard Vincent Perez as its conspicuous Italians.

Only "Up at the Villa" finds it appropriate to cast an Italian as an Italian, almost a droll conceit at the moment.

Kuki is pronounced "Kookie," a slight problem for those old enough to be nostalgic about Edd Byrnes as Kookie the parking lot flash in the TV series "77 Sunset Strip."

Each time someone addressed Miss Basinger as Kuki, I kept expecting the playful refrain of a novelty song inspired by Mr. Byrnes: "Lend me your comb." And not a bad idea in context, since the leading lady boasts a golden mane that seems to shame the lion population, such as it is.

Wedded to a scatterbrained continuity, director Hugh Hudson cannot seem to decide what aspect of the Gallmann homesteading merits emphasis: bad weather, chores, horseplay, the threat of poachers, calamitous accidents, Ema's fondness for snakes, conjugal sex, Miss Saint's arrivals and departures while sharing holidays or burials.

At the fadeout, Miss Basinger contemplates vast acres from a favorite vantage point does she own all that, like the Benedicts in "Giant"? and seems to assert an expansive custodial authority.

Of course, I could be late getting the news. Was Miss Basinger appointed honorary protector of Kenya? If such a distinction prevented her from starring in further agonizing duds, the trade-off would be irresistible.

One and 1/2 Stars out of Four Stars

TITLE: "I Dreamed of Africa"

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor)

CREDITS: Directed by Hugh Hudson

RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes


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