Dirty old man

“Venus”Miramax FilmsDirected by Roger MichellWritten by Hanif KureishiStarring: Peter O’Toole, Jodie Whittaker, Leslie Phillips, Richard Griffiths and Vanessa RedgraveRated R/95 minutesOpened Feb. 2, 2007Three out of four stars

There are certain things that old people can get away with that no one else can. We seem to give them a free pass on things like, I don’t know, being racist. Or dropping F-bombs in public restaurants. Or copping a feel on an attractive 18-year-old woman.

They’re just so cute when they do it, you just can’t get mad at them. After all, they’re going to die soon. So why not let them have their fun?

That theory is applied to Roger Michell’s “Venus,” a pseudo-May/December (or, rather, early February/late December) romance between Maurice (Peter O’Toole), an aging actor, and Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), an aimless teenager who comes over to cook and take Maurice on walks. Now before you get all grossed out, let me make this clear: This is more an affair of the heart than anything else–a last grasp for an aging man whose life of sexual conquests has long since come and gone. So that’s settled: No sex.

There is a connection between Maurice and Jessie. “He’s nice to me,” she admits at one point, suggesting that kindness is something that doesn’t come easily where she comes from.

He pampers her, he buys her things, and in return (or perhaps because she needs an emotional connection herself) she lets him hold her hand or kiss her on the cheek.

If that sounds more than a little creepy?well, it is. But it also makes for an interesting character dynamic and a different kind of romance than we usually see. Maybe even a different kind of love. Maurice is shameless in his desires toward Jessie, and we might think he’s just a dirty old man if he weren’t so adorable. When he’s around Jessie, he walks around with the wide-eyed, mischievous look of a 4-year-old who just got caught opening his Christmas presents two weeks early.

Peter O’Toole is one of the greatest and most natural actors of all time, and while his performance as Maurice is certainly no “Lawrence of Arabia,” this is a gentle and passionate role that allows him ample opportunity to show off his comic timing and emotional depth. There is, and always has been, something in O’Toole’s eyes unlike any other actor of his generation. I can’t tell if it’s a sense of infinite joy or sadness. Or perhaps it’s just the knowledge that he’s better at his job than anyone else is.

O’Toole also plays well off a series of other veteran actors–his old friends and fellow actors, Ian (Leslie Phillips) and Donald (Richard Griffiths), and, in the warmest sub-plot of the movie, the relationship with his ex-wife, Valerie, played by the great Vanessa Redgrave.

Though “Venus” is being hyped as O’Toole’s probable last chance at winning a competitive Oscar (he was nominated for Best Actor), it should not be confused with a great movie. Late developments draw attention away from what the movie is about, and maybe Maurice’s creepiness should have at least been acknowledged, if not toned down. But director Roger Michell has a good feel for his characters, as he did in his much better 1999 romantic comedy, “Notting Hill.”

Maybe “Venus” won’t be quite enough to get O’Toole that elusive Oscar. But if nothing else, it’s a fitting reminder of the giant that he was, and is.

“I say, good chap, cheers to ‘Girls Gone Wild’ and all such ribald displays of nubile young nymphs. I love sex.” Peter O’Toole toasts to salaciousness in “Venus.”