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Formula, The
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by Jack Sommersby

"A 'Formula' for Mediocrity"
2 stars

Even though both George C. Scott and Marlon Brando had appeared in their share of bad films, the on-screen teaming of them had promise, but, alas, they only share two scenes together. As for the film itself, it's the kind of ho-hum cinematic endeavor where the second you see a character walk by a jacuzzi you just know a dead body will be discovered in it later on down the line.

The Formula boasts reasonably witty dialogue, excellent photography, and two outstanding performances by George C. Scott and Marlon Brando. Why, then, is the movie such a disappointing botch? Because the film is lackluster in both the writing and directing departments, with Steve Shagan the chief culprit. He wrote the same-title novel he himself has penned the adaptation of along with serving as the sole producer; and it's been reported he used his power over the project to take it away from director John G. Avildsen in the post-production phase and reshape it, and the final result is a mess. (It's that rare occurrence in Hollywood where a novelist/screenwriter has managed to screw up his own source material.) The Formula takes on an ever-timely topic, that of the United States's major oil companies in cahoots to drive up the price of oil while suppressing cheaper, cleaner fuel alternatives, but it's thematically blusterous rather than contextually sound -- the creaky plot and two-dimensional characters are simply there in a half-ass attempt to support the topic. And because the mystery aspects are clunky, and because Alvidsen is far from a superb craftsman, the film isn't strongest in the two main departments it needs to succeed. Scott, who has the most screen time of the two, displays his usual solidity as Los Angeles Lieutenant Barney Caine, who's called to investigate the shooting death of a former policeman friend. The victim is found in his Beverly Hills home, in bed with nine gunshot wounds, cocaine on the nightstand, signs of recent sexual activity, and the letters G-E-N-E scrawled in his blood on a piece of paper by him; credit-card statements show he'd made numerous visits to other countries, including West Berlin; and recent contacts range from some shady underworld figures to one Adam Steiffel (Brando), a megalomaniacal Big Oil executive. Brando, chock-full of joie de vivre, latches onto this juicy role and tears into it as if it were Steak Tartar. With a bald plate, eyeglasses and a hearing aid in one ear, he acts with an understated concentrated intensity without ever serving up caricature. Adam is unapologetically amoral, and with a small army of bodyguards watching Barney interview him, you can sense his displeasure at having to give this working-class man the time of day. But he's intelligently conniving -- he deftly deflects Barney's interrogation to where there's no viable evidence connecting him to the death. Adam's rotten to the core, yet Brando, imaginatively filling in every conceivable corner of the man, makes him a fascinating creation. He's corporate sleaze personified.

Thus far The Formula has built up a fair amount of interest, and for another thirty minutes or so the introduction of additional characters played by an array of first-rate supporting actors (John Gielgud, G.D. Spradlin, Richard Lynch) provides some texture. But after a while the convoluted plot, which spans from L.A. to West Berlin to Switzerland, becomes joylessly dense. Straddling the line between crime-drama and thriller, the film is in dire need of propulsion and compression, but all Alvidsen can do is get in and out of the scenes with mere competence. A nighttime action sequence outside the Berlin Zoo isn't staged particularly well (though cinematographer James Crabe lights it with a spooky suggestiveness), the mediocre pacing isn't swift enough to glide over the numerous implausibilities (needed is the tension-filled finesse John Schlesinger brought to the party in Marathon Man), and the casting of the unfocused Marthe Keller in a pivotal role of a femme fatale is a considerable demerit (she was also out of her element as the Palestinian terrorist in Black Sunday). But it's Shagan's sophomoric ultra-cynicism that ultimately does things in. Making a Big Statement without bothering to lend anything of a dramatic interpretation to the proceedings, Shagan, as was the case with his myopic, equally-didactic Save the Tiger, is one of those high-minded artists with the barest of talents whose penchant for cheap sensationalism is matched only by his innate vacuousness. During the final Barney/Adam confrontation Scott is reduced to spouting an array of heavy-handed platitudes ("What do you know about this nation? When did you ever give a second thought to American citizens? You're the reason their money's worthless. You're the reason old people are eating out of garbage cans. Kids get killed in bullshit wars. You're not in the oil business, you're in the oil-shortage business") that have no force because absolutely nothing of substance has preceded them. The Formula is what used to be referred to during the 'fifties and 'sixties as a "message movie," but a good deal of these didn't ignore story and characterization, whereas Shagan trots out so many well-worn familiarities and stereotypes it's a miracle they managed to stick to celluloid. Scott and Brando, though, redeeming themselves for their lackluster work the year before (Scott in Hardcore, Brando in Apocalypse Now), lend their portrayals a great deal of detailed physicality and look great under Crabe's immaculate high-sheen visual schema, but overcoming Shagan's sententious ingulgences is too tall an order for any acting giant.

The DVD boasts a solid transfer, which gives Crabe's Oscar-nominated cinematography the respect it deserves.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=25377&reviewer=327
originally posted: 07/01/13 08:59:14
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User Comments

9/13/15 mr.mike Fair mystery. 2 stars
6/30/13 Charles Tatum A guaranteed cure for insomnia, don't let that cast fool you 1 stars
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  19-Dec-1980 (R)


  13-Feb-1981 (PG)

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