There’s an exchange early on in Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones in which the young Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christenson) and Obi-wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) are preparing to pursue an assassin, one that Obi-Wan has mistaken for a man. Anakin says, “I think he is a she. And she’s probably a changeling.”

“In that case, be extra careful,” Obi-Wan responds.

Now, performers from Groucho Marx to Humphrey Bogart to Woody Allen would have gotten a huge laugh out of that line, but McGregor quotes it in dull earnest, then continues on with his business. There’s a lot of similarly drab chitchat in this action movie spectacular; George Lucas’ galaxy is a big, big place, but there’s no room for wit, irony or silliness.

Let me confess that I’m utterly indifferent to the Star Wars series, and I’ve always been mystified by the pandemonium that surrounds each new release. A few years ago, I saw the first installment for the first time since I was a child, and I was shocked by the laughable dialogue, stiff performances and banal plot. And, of course, the once-dazzling special effects were no longer so impressive.

Nonetheless, I brought as much optimism as I could muster to a recent screening of Attack of the Clones. As it turns out, this latest chapter is a mess, a technicolor riot of one blinding set piece after another, punctuated only by deadly expository scenes. Instead of careful pacing and plotting, the scenes race by in an undifferentiated orgy of spectacularity, and the attractive young actors (Natalie Portman, along with Christensen and McGregor) are practically neutered and spayed. To top it off, every second is larded with a bombastic John Williams score of pseudo-Wagner horseshit, swelling and swirling at triple forte.

Despite all of this, however, Attack of the Clones actually managed to sustain my interest for most of its running time. To be sure, I won’t see it again in a million years, in this galaxy or any other, but the experience was a fascinating one for a cinephile trying to make sense of it all. Despite my relative ignorance of the earlier films, the plot is easy enough to follow (like any soap opera, you can catch up pretty quickly). The story concerns some good guys and bad guys who meet regularly for chases and shootouts; we also begin to see Anikin Skywalker, the young Jedi who is destined to become Darth Vader, chafing under the strict tutelage of Obi-Wan.

I actually quit paying attention to the plot midway through and began to marvel at what I suppose could be the real appeal of the Star Wars films: the stunningly lavish production design and the limitless special effects. George Lucas can do anything he wants; all he has to do is throw money at his visions, and they appear. As the movie unfolded, I realized that Lucas is the fortunate man who has been able to achieve the ambitions of the grandiose and often doomed dreamers from the dawn of cinema, and he knows it. Attack of the Clones is stuffed with allusions to the work of filmmakers such as D.W. Griffith, Fritz Lang, Cecil B. DeMille, Abel Gance, Erich von Stroheim, John Ford and Leni Riefenstahl.

With the significant exception of Ford, all of these directors made impossibly over-the-top films in the early decades of the art, and many were ruined by their ambitions. The cross-cutting of the action dates to Griffith, and the ghost of DeMille appears in a swords-and-sandals scene in which the three stars are thrown to (very digital-looking) beasts in an extragalactical Colosseum. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is acknowledged in the film’s opening set piece, an impressive aerial chase scene set in a city very much like the one in Lang’s 1927 masterpiece. Cinching the case is a scene in which Anakin attempts to rescue his mother, who has been kidnapped by desert bandits. Lucas shoots this scene in a digital Monument Valley, shot-for-shot almost exactly as a similar scene appears in The Searchers, John Ford’s incomparable amalgamation of The Odyssey, King Lear and Moby Dick.

Thanks to the modern computer magic at his command, Lucas has turned into the Promethean figure that most of his predecessors failed to become. He commands the resources to get his dazzling visions on the screen, and hundreds of millions of people will buy tickets to see them. It’s quite an accomplishment, to be sure, but you can’t help wishing his films were better.

Way back in 1994, Hugh Grant became a star with his turn in Four Weddings and a Funeral. His impish grin, tousled locks and nonstop mugging had many women of my acquaintance squealing, “He’s so attractive!” Everywhere, Grant was hailed as a sophisticated European charmer, the new Cary Grant, literate, witty and adorable.

I hated him. I hated his phony innocence and I hated that grin. I wanted someone (myself, preferably) to pick him up and stuff all of his effete English charm into the nearest trash can. What Grant landed in, however, turned out to be more like a gutter, when he was arrested for purchasing a blowjob on a side street in Hollywood.

The scandal sidetracked his career, but in last year’s hit, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Grant re-emerged as a bankable star when he played Renée Zellweger’s caddish suitor, Daniel Cleaver. It was brilliantly counterintuitive casting, and Grant was pitch-perfect in what could have been a thankless role (and indeed, I sort of rooted for Zellweger to end up with him, rather than Colin Firth’s dully virtuous Darcy). In his youth, Grant’s distracting mannerisms had been part of his fey charm. But now that he is older, and his face is leaner and harder, the self-conscious stammering and mugging seem more like shopworn tricks in the bag of an aging roué.

In his new film, About a Boy, Grant mixes his new bad-guy persona with an inspired step toward reclaiming his lost innocence. He plays Will Freeman, an independently wealthy Londoner who lives alone in his comfortable flat, surrounded by his fancy stereo, his DVD and CD players, and above all, his television. He’s a 19th-century dandy who fills his hours with exercising, eating, getting his hair done and pursuing meaningless affairs. “How do people find the time to work?” he wonders.

When we meet him, Will is hitting on a plan to court single mothers, on the theory that they have time only for the quick flings that he desires. After some tragicomic events, he becomes involved with a lonely 12-year-old boy (Nicholas Hoult) with a mentally disturbed mother (Toni Collette). It sounds like an unbearably saccharine setup, but let it be said that this is a sharp comedy, based on a Nick Hornby novel. Moviegoers may remember another Hornby adaptation, High Fidelity, and like that film, About a Boy charts the emotional maturation of a solipsistic hipster; and likewise, the new film’s script features large chunks of Hornby’s irresistable prose, wonderfully delivered by Grant in voiceover.

For much of the film, Will is not the least bit sympathetic, and to Grant’s credit, he resists softening or sentimentalizing the character. Even in the film’s climax, when Will comes to the boy’s rescue, Grant keeps himself in check, showing how difficult a gesture of altruism (and love) is for his character. Against my expectations, About a Boy has me eagerly awaiting the next movie from this charming, rueful, but no longer adorable actor. EndBlock