LOLITA (1998)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 17 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Aberrant Sexuality, a strong scene of Violence, Nudity and some Language

Lolita poster

Directed by: Adrian Lyne

Written by: Stephen Schiff

(based on the novel LOLITA by Vladimir Nabokov)

Starring: Jeremy Irons, Dominique Swain, Frank Langella, Melanie Griffith & Suzanne Shepherd

If you think FIFTY SHADES OF GREY generated controversy in book stores everywhere? You haven’t seen anything yet! In the world of American Literature, things certainly don’t get more notorious than Nabakov’s LOLITA. This novel is often considered to have some of the most beautiful romantic verses of all time, but there’s just one tiny, little problem: the love story happens to be between a manipulative pedophile and a young girl that he’s preying upon. I never plan on reading Nabakov’s novel due to the content alone and only dared to cover this film based purely on a discussion in a college course from those who had read the material. Suffice to say that this movie masquerades as a would-be romance, but is by far one of the most unintentionally uncomfortable viewing experiences that I’ve ever had in my entire life.

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Humbert Humbert has always had a fondness for nymphets as he calls them (girls in the 9 to 14 age range). Upon accepting a teaching position in New Hampshire, Humbert rents a room in the house of a single mother and his reasoning for this is frightening as all get out. Humbert has fallen head over heels in love with the mother’s teenage daughter, Dolores, whom he nicknames “Lolita.” Humbert tries desperately but cannot keep his passion hidden for long and finds himself in a doomed relationship with Lolita that will have dire consequences for everyone.

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There are a couple of nice compliments I can give this movie. The first good thing comes in some of the stylistic choices. During a number of scenes in this movie, the film uses oddly framed shots that represent a paranoid state of mind that Humbert is inhabiting at that moment. I’ll admit that all of my problems with this movie are pretty much are the fault of the celebrated (and deeply controversial) source material. I really couldn’t get beyond the fact that what I was watching was monstrous. LOLITA plays itself off as a beautiful love story, disturbingly narrated by Humbert throughout the entire film. We hear his passionate speeches about Lolita and see friggin’ disturbing moments where the implications are downright stomach-churning. There are very few subjects in film that seem all around nasty to me, but pedophilia is one of these subjects. Pacing wise, the film also runs far too long by rushing through more interesting plot points in the first act and dragging out other moments to an unnecessarily dull degree.

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Without a doubt, Jeremy Irons is a talented performer and has taken on some fantastic roles in the space of his career (though I’ll always know his voice as Scar in THE LION KING). He tries here. He really puts an honest effort into his performance, but he simply cannot make the character of Humbert Humbert into a likable character or someone who we want to watch for over two hours. Dominique Swan mercifully looks older than she actually was while filming this movie, but is insanely annoying as Lolita. I know that part of her “charm” to Humbert is her childlike innocence and smart-aleck sass, but I felt that the bratty kid was extremely over-the-top to the enth degree. Finally, there’s the second compliment I can give this film in the antagonist played by Frank Langella. Though he’s sadly absent for a majority of the screen time, Langella gives a brilliantly unhinged performance in the only stand-out great scene to come out of the whole film.

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LOLITA is easily one of the most uncomfortable, unnerving films that I’ve ever sat through. Nearly all its problems seem to spring from the troubling source material which almost seems to be a pedophile wish-fulfillment book. Though the style of the film is definitely interesting in moments and Frank Langella delivers a really solid performance, the movie is far too long as a whole and really just plods along in its icky feelings (which seem to be unintentional). While some folks might be able to overlook the horrific nature of what’s going on here, I was never out of the woods in thinking that this was a sick movie based on a sick novel about a sick man.

Grade: D

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