Worth A Look: 16.85%
Just Average: 21.35%
Pretty Crappy: 44.94%
9 reviews, 35 user ratings
|Don't Say a Word
by Jack Sommersby
A real lamebrained, incoherent piece of cinema.Though actor Michael Douglas continues to be an always-welcome presence on the silver screen, not even his bona fide charm and charisma are enough to make Don't Say a Word, a lackluster, utterly inane adaptation of Andrew Klavan's award-winning suspense novel, worth seeing. The film is disposable junk, plain and simple, with such a high degree of incoherence and IQ-insulting obviousness that you know the project would have never been green-lighted without a major star's participation. Now, in an age when audiences are subjected to one disappointing thriller after another that pollutes and stinks up multiplexes (like Panic Room and Murder by Numbers, to name just a couple) the thought of even a merely-adequate one is enough to somewhat raise expectations, which Don't Say a Word admittedly did in my particular case. Yet its innate ineptness shows through not five minutes in. It's so bad, in fact, that Douglas should have his wrists slapped for lending his prestigious name to it.
"Just Another Lame-Duck Thriller"
Klavan's novels are generally overwritten -- they climax out halfway through, while the too-colorful prose always seems to be trying to one-up the twisty plot turns, resulting in uncouth literary concoctions that gratingly overwhelm -- but three noted screenwriters and director-star Clint Eastwood managed to pare down the excesses of his beat-the-clock thriller True Crime, taking a familiar story structure and infusing it with enough colorful panache to make the screen adaptation of it one of 1999's ten-best films. Reportedly, Douglas was intrigued but dissatisfied with the original draft of Don't Say a Word, so he brought screenwriter Patrick Smith Kelly on board, who had served the star dilligently with his dandy 1998 updating of Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder, the underrated A Perfect Murder, where (most) of the potential plot holes were seamlessly paved over with tactful intelligence. So I was more than a bit shocked at the spotty plotting and gaping logic loopholes continually popping up throughout in Don't Say a Word.
The opening scene is a prologue from ten years back, which involves an armed robbery of a Brooklyn bank, where a ten-million-dollar jewel is the object, not cold-hard cash. But the plan goes to hell when, after successfully attaining their prize and speeding down the street in two separate getaway cars, the mastermind of the operation, Patrick Kosher (played by the typically morose Sean Bean), discovers his second-in-command has pulled a double-cross by inserting a fake jewel in his bag while holding on to the real one for himself. Implausibly, Kosher demands that they go back to the bank, to the scene of the crime where, only one or two minutes before, they blew up their arriving vehicle as a diversion, with cops swarming all over the place! Even the Keystone Cops, with the ultimate bumbling detective-in-charge, would have wrangled these baddies in within seconds of their re-appearance.
The film picks up in the present day, where we're introduced to the hero, Manhattan psychiatrist Nathan Conrad (Mr. Douglas), as he consoles a prep-school teenager that "whacking off is all right". While the point is clear that Nathan is a talented man wasting his potential away in an unchallenging, high-priced practice, the context of the scene still exudes banality. It's Thanksgiving Eve, by the way, and before Nathan can return to home to his wife and young daughter, he's urgently summoned to a state-run mental institution by his old colleage, Dr. Jerald Sachs (Oliver Platt -- the best character actor of his generation -- giving his first boo-hiss performance), who persuades him to take a crack at a seemingly impenetrable seventeen-year-old schizophrenic girl, Elisabeth Burrows (the inept Brittany Murphy), who hasn't spoken a word in ten years.
What all this comes down to is once Nathan manages to (implausibly) break through to Elisabeth, eliciting a few vague sentences of speech, his plans for a nice peaceful holiday season go to hell. The next morning, upon discovery that his daughter has been (implausibly) kidnapped from his posh apartment building, Nathan is contacted by the the mastermind Patrick, who's convinced that Elisabeth has a six-digit code that will produce the whereabouts of that multi-million dollar jewel. Nathan is given just eight hours to attain those numbers and exchange them for his daughter's life. We know, of course, that things will most definitely not go as planned, with an endless array of chases and close-calls and heated exchanges sure to follow. We're not let down in these departments; thus, we're not enjoyably surprised, either.
Where on Earth to start:
-- the strict time limit imposed upon Nathan seems futile since the jewel isn't going anywhere and the villains have all the time in the world. Hence, it reeks of Movieland contrivance. Why the hell just not kidnap Nathan and lock him in a room with Elisabeth for however long it takes to break through to her? Sure, his daughter's threatened life serves as an incentive; but wouldn't the threat of his own life work just as well?
-- the subplot involving a gutsy and determined NYPD homicide detective (well-played by Jennifer Esposito, a sort of non-nauseating Jennifer Lopez) tracking down two victims Patrick has offed is tacky because it serves no discernible purpose except to provide Nathan with a last-minute savior during the finale when he's about to be shot.
-- the habitual hide-and-seek game played by Nathan and his daughter in their apartment at the beginning is a phony sequence; it's just there so Nathan (and only the most clueless audiences) will wrongfully presume she's hiding on that fateful morning when in fact she's been kidnapped.
-- Nathan's wife (a lovely and alert Famke Janssen), who's bedridden with a broken leg, managing to get the upper hand on a knife-wielding attacker and subsequently killing him. The logistics of the fight are trite, as is the none-too-subtle foreshadowing of that rod-like leg-scratcher to be used as a lethal weapon in the near future.
-- another one of those trumped-up action finales in a graveyard at night where not nearly enough light is present to afford the characters the keen eyesight they nonetheless display. And as winning as it is to see Nathan heroically swing into action, his successful clobbering of a well-built thug is iffy at best.
The script is certainly a shambles, with the character base near zero and dialogue that's so familiar you can practically lip-sync it along with the actors at places, but the guiding force behind it all, the direction, is wildly uneven. Gary Fleder displayed a confident visual stride in his energetic debut, Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead, but dropped the ball with his indifferent handling of the tepid serial killer pic Kiss the Girls, where the measured, respectful camerawork was always at odds with the pulpy and trashy material. In trying to be a "classy" director, Fleder singlehandedly drained whatever fun there was out of author James Patterson's kicky story. While he no doubt possesses a natural eye for film composition -- Aaron Schneider's widescreen cinematography in Girls there was ungodly delicious -- he lacks the ability to give his narratives the necessary propulsion to swoon audiences along on a kinetic and tension-filled cinematic ride. His films come off as compilations rather than well-integrated wholes.
With Don't Say a Word, Fleder uses a lot more in the way of cuts and arty camera angles than before (Amir Mokri's camerawork is pretty but studied and stiff), as if in a dire attempt to draw attention away from the ho-hum plot specifics by telling the story strictly through visual means, which somewhat helps but fails to manipulate us altogether because there's a fatal lack of immediacy at the film's center. Since the character of Elisabeth exists as mere plot function, and being that Murphy is monotonous in portraying her, there's very little reason to be drawn into the story because Nathan will obviously emerge the almighty hero, and, of course, Elisabeth will find a long-lost father figure in him in the process. Besides, she's never in any real danger because that code is needed, and with Nathan necessary as her catalyst and Patrick's conduit, his well-being is essentially assured as well. Sure, their usefulness will have expired by the finale, but, then again, we're aware that the female supercop will arrive just in the nick of time, aren't we?
Though Michael Douglas is appealing and watchable as ever, Nathan's emotional plight never really affects us as much as it should; since we know perfectly well that the producers at 20th Century Fox wouldn't allow for the hero's seven-year-old daughter to killed, there's nary a doubt in the world that she'll be valiantly rescued by him in the end. It's hard to see what in the material Douglas was drawn to, aside from the fact that at the age of fifty-five he could play another mild-mannered professional who uses intellect rather than brawn to outwit the villain and save the day, except that Nathan's decision-making isn't all that acute being that he winds up facing down the end of a gun barrel in the end. Nathan promises to be unorthodox and brazen at first when refusing to adhere to the villain's rules -- he actually hangs up on Patrick the first time around -- but it doesn't take long for the 'ol nonsensical obedience to kick in, and you're soon watching Douglas going through essentially the same motions Mel Gibson did in Ron Howard's wretched Ransom from some seven years ago.
Don't Say a Word is pretty terrible stuff, yet it's no worse than most current thrillers and actual moves at a decent pace throughout. Douglas appeared in two of last decade's most underappreciated thrillers, the cited A Perfect Murder and David Fincher's The Game, both of which were modest successes but not enough to set North American box offices on fire. Yet plenty of knuckle-headed ones like Double Jeopardy and Red Dragon, did bang-up business even though you could spot the plot turns a good ten minutes ahead of the hero or heroine. Then again, most audiences seem to be prefer being spoon-fed information instead of gamely grappling for it, being handed easy-to-read labels for characters rather than deciding for themselves if they're as "good" or "evil" as they appear. It's easy to harp on Don't Say a Word's countless, unforgivable flaws; what's not so easy, however, is to easily dismiss the prevailing moviegoer's mind-set that craves such a product that unfortunately is more the rule rather than the exception in the world today.Rent a good Michael Douglas thriller like "The Game" or "A Perfect Murder" instead.
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originally posted: 03/01/03 12:51:31