Tuesday, September 22, 2009

On DVD: "High Crimes"

Carl Franklin is an indisputably talented director with a remarkably spotty filmography; it includes triumphs like his breakthrough film One False Move, Devil in a Blue Dress, and the phenomenal, underrated ticking-clock thriller Out of Time. But it would seem that he’s a filmmaker at the mercy of his material, so when he gets clunker scripts like the Renee Zellweger weepie One True Thing or the 2002 Ashley Judd-Morgan Freeman vehicle High Crimes, he can’t do much with them. High Crimes is like a JV version of A Few Good Men, shedding most of that picture’s wit and intelligence, but keeping the yelling.

The film begins with one of those portraits of upscale suburban bliss that can only serve as a predicator of bad times on the way. Claire Kubik (Judd) is a high-powered, high-profile San Francisco attorney who is on her way to a partnership and working hard to start a family with her husband Tom (Jim Caviezel), who is apparently some kind of furniture maker (he has a perfect, immaculate shop down the hill from their stately home). Then, one night, someone breaks into their house while they sleep, and when the police take prints, they get a hit on Tom. It seems he is wanted by the Marines, under a different name, for nine murders on a mission gone awry. When she finds out he has been assigned a rookie lieutenant (Adam Scott) with no wins, she tries to defend him herself; she ends up hiring an ex-Marine lawyer (Freeman) with a chip on his shoulder and a drinking problem.

Freeman doesn’t appear until about 26-minute mark, and boy are we ready for him by then. The first act of Yuri Zeltser and Cary Bickley’s screenplay is shockingly amateurish, filled with dopey, sign-posting dialogue, and even an actor of Freeman’s skill can’t do much with some of these lines—he announces, at one point, “I’m the wild card!” which is not something a character should just come out and say (though when Judd is striding through her office, accepting kudos and tossing out barbs, she may as well just announce, “I’m a high-powered attorney!”). When one of Freeman’s notions pays off, he grins and notes, “I love being the wild card!” That’s the kind of line that plays great in a trailer (as it did in this one) but stops a scene cold; it’s a wink to the audience, because real people don’t actually talk like that.

But Freeman is still the best thing in the picture; when (in a turn that will surprise absolutely no one) he falls off the wagon and disappears for a good chunk of the middle, our interest goes with him (though it is worth noting that he plays drunk quite well). Judd’s work is mostly phony and false, pounding the same note of shrill self-righteousness. She’s at her best in her scenes with Freeman, with whom she retains the easy chemistry of their 1997 collaboration Kiss the Girls. Caviezel is a cipher, but not in the good way intended for his enigmatic role—it’s a dull, whispy performance that ultimately adds up to a collection of tics and affectations. Reliable ol’ Amanda Peet’s role is a cliché, and fairly unnecessary to the story, but she does manage to play it with some juice.

Franklin’s direction is fairly undistinguished; he spends a good deal of the film whipping his camera around in a frenzied attempt to generate interest. It’s for naught. Aside from the occasional sharp scene (a brief appearance by Michael Shannon, later to co-star with Judd in the far superior Bug; her smart tough-girl bit with Bruce Davison), High Crimes is mostly inert, predictable, and cliché-ridden, and the big “surprise twist” before the generic action ending is nonsensical, sure to shock only those who have never seen a film before.

High Crimes feels like a movie made by a machine: take a mystery novel, add in an above-title pairing that’s proven to sell tickets, and pump it full of tired conventions and tin-eared dialogue, on the way to predictable ending that’s been done to death. I’m not sure how many fans the film has, or how many of them were clamoring for a high-definition release, but if you’ve avoided it so far, there’s no reason to change your course now.

"High Crimes" hit Blu-ray on September 1st.

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