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Grandpa of Arabia

"Venus" paints a realistic portrait of old age.

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In the 401(k)-plan video version of old age, the polished elderly romp at casinos and all-white retirement condos with the freedom afforded by wise investing. "Venus," starring Peter O'Toole as an antique thespian, instead paints a less rosy picture.

Roger Michell's film layers the years of its older characters under folds of skin covered most of the time (thank God) by mounds of prickly woolens and seats them at the local cafe for hours of reminiscing. We don't have to actually experience those hours; "Venus" is a spry 94 minutes. But the highly enjoyable film gives us the idea.

"Venus" is set in London, the poetically perfect place to find Maurice (O'Toole) and Ian (Leslie Phillips), old friends living out their so-called golden years amid its gloomy gray skies and crumbling stones. Anywhere else would be too cheerful for these creaky vessels of Shakespeare. Theirs is a fitful shuffle from cafe to hospital to the evening's performance, with plenty of quips and morbid humor sustaining them in between.

The setup for "Venus" comes in the form of Ian's grandniece (Jodie Whittaker). She's supposed to be his new caretaker, but Maurice would like to make her his own. His kingdom for a look up her skirt, he might think, if not shout. Her name is Jessie, a Cockney waif who vaguely aspires to be a model. Ian, an old queen, can't stand her, but Maurice takes her to the theater, to lunch, shopping -- whatever offers his ancient mitts the chance to accidentally fall across her back. In one hilarious scene, Maurice finds Jessie a modeling job in a student art class. His intentions are transparent. Forced to leave the room, he has a Larry David moment while trying to sneak a peek over the door.

When Maurice fails to make Jessie a nude model, he takes her to an art museum to show her Velazquez's painting of the goddess. Jessie, even as dull as she is, can hardly be unaware of Maurice's intentions, though the movie wisely never makes her something she's not. Ian humorously thinks this young connoisseur of noodles and game shows will like Edith Wharton. Maurice, maybe instinctively informed by his heterosexuality, takes a less direct approach, but the lines of verse he throws out here and there are more to her mind like a whistle to a dog. The ears may perk up, but the meaning is lost. This is not "Educating Rita," but something more painfully realistic.

"Venus" has a lot of fun with the blatant attempt of an older man to seduce a younger, less worldly woman. There are also serious emotions beneath Maurice's cavalier attitude. Deep down he hurts, a fact shown to us through composition as often as dialogue. Similar points are just as subtle but often staggering: A picture from younger days appears in the paper, prompting a waitress to comment, "My, he was gorgeous." It's the summation of a codger who played Hamlet and left leagues of real tragedy in his wake. She could very well be talking about O'Toole: It is his photograph we see.

Jessie feels like she's giving a lot of herself to allow this old man the occasional sniff of her hair. It's Maurice, however, who is lowering himself — a fact echoed in his working life, whenever he must play a corpse. "Typecast again," his wife snickers. It's a shame whenever the movie compromises a little, as well, with a few verses of a pop song or a moment of sentimentality. Michell takes a somber moment late in the picture to gaze out at the English Atlantic, and the picture could have ended well there, but it doesn't.

Could it, these days? Maybe some compromises are deemed necessary. Most of us grew up on noodles and game shows, too. But if you can stand a little Hollywood-style resolution at the end, you'll find a lot of humanity laid bare along the way with, as the movie puts it, all its "chaffs and bumps." (R) 95 min. **** S

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