You'd have to go back a long way in cinematic history to find another movie as smug and self-satisfied as "Quills."
Despite some strong performances by its cast, as well as the film's preposterous claims to be more important than it really is, this over-the-top, historically based dark comedy is little more than sloganeering (from the Hollywood entertainment industry) masquerading as art.
But what else can you expect from a film in which the strongest statement is the expected movie clich that "organized religion is bad, censorship is worse," and that "freedom of expression is good, no matter what that expression is."
After being bludgeoned with that message for more than two hours, any other points the film tries to make quickly lose their potency, and all we're left with is a residue unpleasant griminess.
And then there's the odd choice for the film's "hero" — or the very least, its standard-bearer for what's right and good with the world: the Marquis de Sade, played by British actor and Oscar-winner (for "Shine") Geoffrey Rush.
Based on Doug Wright's stage play, "Quills" tells the fictionalized story of the scandalous writer's final days, spent in the Charenton Asylum for the Insane. Most attempts to rehabilitate the Marquis have gone for naught, and with help from a chambermaid, Madeleine (Kate Winslet), he has actually continued to write and publish.
Meanwhile, the Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix) is continuing his efforts to at least restrain the Marquis before he causes even more of a scandal, but he's torn between his love for Madeleine and his sense of duty.
Finally, in frustration, the Napoleonic government sends in Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to "cure" the Marquis once and for all — though his methods are so extreme that they even have the Abbe doubting him.
It's not that the film's plea against knee-jerk censorship is unwelcome. But director Philip Kaufman attacks the material with his customary lack of subtlety, which pretty much renders it moot.
Needless to say, this isn't the strong career comeback that Kaufman needed. Between this, the racially insensitive thriller "Rising Sun" and his ponderous, NC-17 period piece "Henry and June," Kaufman seems to be regressing rather than progressing, talentwise.
And Wright, who adapted his own work, can't seem to decide whether he wants to praise the Marquis' efforts or demonize him for his more reprehensible traits. Worse, none of the other characters progress beyond simple "good" or "evil" categorizations.
That said, Rush does manage to make the film watchable with a daring performance that's probably funnier and certainly more thrilling than it deserves to be.
Some of that may be due to Winslet, whose scenes with Rush are the film's best. In fact, her feisty performance is surely the best given by the supporting cast. Though Phoenix has received some raves, his performance here pales in comparison to his work in "Gladiator," while the usually dependable Caine is surprisingly one-note.
"Quills" is rated R for crude sexual humor and use of sexually explicit dialogue, full male and female nudity, graphic gore, scattered use of strong profanity, scenes of simulated sex (some aberrant), violence (including executions), a scene of torture and attempted rape. Running time: 123 minutes.