Keaton is evil incarnate as psychopath in 'Pacific Heights'

September 28, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'Pacific Heights'

Starring Michael Keaton and Melanie Griffith.

Directed by John Schlesinger.

Released by 20th-Century Fox.

Rated R.

** 1/2

In "Pacific Heights," Mr. Bland builds his dream house and Mr. Nightmare takes it from him.

This mordant thriller has a nifty, original premise and an intriguing set of antagonists. It pits life-loving, planet-friendly yuppies against a psychopath in a game of wits and escalating violence in the battleground of California real estate law. Unfortunately, toward the end it gives up on cleverness and menace and simply becomes another horror picture.

Bland Matthew Modine and spunky Melanie Griffith play a young unmarried couple named Drake Goodman and Patty Palmer who go deep into hock to buy a rundown San Francisco gingerbread palace high on a hill overlooking the city. They work like hell to restore it, knowing that they've got to attract renters to its two apartments in order to meet their mortgage every month.

They rent quickly, too. The big apartment goes to a gentle Japanese-American couple; then Drake is more or less fast-talked into letting the smaller place to one Carter Hayes (Michael Keaton), a Porsche-driving fellow yuppie in three-piece

suits who says he works for a confidential trust fund. Somehow, his rental deposit never shows up.

What neither Drake nor Patty know is that California real estate law, presumably in response to numerous cases of the poor being summarily chucked out to make room for rich developers, is pitched now toward the renters. Once he takes possession, the whole majesty of the law lines up behind the renter; getting him out involves legal processes that eat up time, money, patience and civility, and it doesn't matter whether he's paid one penny's worth of rent. Once he's in, he's in.

And is Michael Keaton ever in. This actor has played the giddy edge of maniacal charm for quite some time; now he steps over the line into maniacal mania, and he's so good, so instantly frightening, you wonder why nobody ever thought of it before. His mannerisms, so fresh and antic, seem unbearably threatening when they mask an ugly agenda; his insouciant, plastic face seems terrifying when it's hiding motives.

He's the tenant from hell, able to play the large body of law in his behalf like a master guitarist, a twang here, a chord there, a riff to tie it all up. Moreover, he's clearly nuts: a boor, a loud boor, a loud violent boor. Worst of all, he's a grifter. He simply will not pay the rent and his refusal puts financial pressure on Drake and Patty so intense it nearly drives them to violence. Finally, it does drive them to violence, or poor Drake, who beats Carter within an inch of his life, and is quickly hauled off to prison, and then sued.

It turns out that this is Carter's scam, his business: He's a professional bad tenant, and when he takes a room, he takes a whole life and usually walks away much richer. And he's very good at it.

The movie is compelling, but it's not very deep. Subtexts go underexploited. The Modine character, for example, is clearly meant to represent the guileless, ineffectual do-gooder, completely unprepared to deal with evil on its own terms. He's quickly dismissed as a silly duck, but the movie refuses to acknowledge the meaning of his failure. At the same time, the movie assigns the task of vengeance to Griffith, and she quickly proves gifted at the game. Yet neither she nor the movie stop to wonder about the source of her cunning and her resourcefulness.

In a curious way, she has the same mischievous psychopathic tendencies as Keaton, and is untrammeled by the notions of "decency" that render her boyfriend so useless. (His name is "Drake Goodman," as in good man, in case you don't get it). The films holds such values up to contempt, and it admires the slick way Keaton deconstructs the couple and the slick way Griffith deconstructs him. But somehow you expect this to be commented upon; it's not even noticed.

And whatever hold on the imagination "Pacific Heights" achieves by the three-quarter mark is quickly squandered in the last few minutes of routine violence. This is like the crowd-pleasing but dramatically inappropriate ending to "Fatal Attraction"; it feels grafted on, rather than organic.

The director, John Schlesinger, was once a great artist, with "Darling," "Billy Liar" and "Midnight Cowboy" to his credit. He retains incisive, impressive storytelling skills; now, if only he'd find a story worth telling.

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