jacob's ladder Adrian Lyne's commanding, yet incomprehensible thriller

November 02, 1990|By STEPHEN HUNTER | STEPHEN HUNTER,Sun Film Critic

'Jacob's Ladder'

Starring Tim Robbins.

Directed by Adrian Lyne.

Released by Carolco.

Rated R.

** 1/2

We are slamming "Jacob's Ladder," we are slamming "Jacob's Ladder," we are slamming "Jacob's Ladder," soldiers of the bored.

The movie, a collaboration between "Ghost" screenwriter and serious mystic Bruce Joel Rubin and "Fatal Attraction's" super slick image mechanic Adrian Lyne, works hard to earn its scorn: a $25 million fever dream, it is fast, visceral, commanding, demanding, incomprehensible and silly. You may not notice how silly it is until you start to think about it . . . but trust me: It's silly.

Tim Robbins plays a young Vietnam vet in working-class New York in the '70s who, besides the customary post-combat stress syndrome that Hollywood insists is de rigueur for all vets, has some other serious problems. Among them: eyeless, faceless demons keep trying to lock him up. He keeps missing his stop in the subway. And when his girlfriend Elizabeth Pena dances, she turns into a horned griffin. Hmm, this boy needs more than a counseling session at the VA.

Worse, he keeps flashing back to some other life, vaguely familiar but somehow . . . not his. In this life, he's married, educated, has three kids and a nice career as a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy.

And still another level of flashback keeps kicking its way into his life: He remembers the Nam and the horrible night that . . . something happened. The film is all flash -- flashbacks, flash-forwards, flashes sideways, flash floods of imagery, flash fires of obscurity, all of it at flash speed.

In this heightened universe of rush, it plays with the idea of the breakdown: It appears to be an up-close and personal view of a man having the meanest mother of a nervous meltdown of all times. His brain must be turning to cheeseburger before our very eyes, and Robbins' baby face and huge, childish body make this situation ache with pain. So skillful is the level of craft Lyne applies to the material that it is instantly convincing at the gut level, if not quite believable again in retrospect.

Lyne uses to the maximum the cinema's unique capacity to convince us of the reality of visions and the movie is constantly pulling the rug of naturalism out from under our shaky feet, as we realize that what we've believed to exist in nature only exists in Jacob Singer's head. Or, to give a little of the film's mystical core away, in classical theology.

Working with a gifted film designer, Lyne creates vistas of heaven and hell that are far removed from the vocabulary of cliche, but still instantly knowable. Hell, for example, is a 19th century hospital, where the mad howl and shiver, severed limbs lie about and the corpses mount up in piles in bleak rooms. Heaven is much simpler: It's simply home.

It's difficult to discuss the movie's theological underpinnings without giving its gimmick away, and thereby spoiling the surprise at the end. Nevertheless, the movie suffers from two primary flaws that are directly related to its spiritual content.

The more specific one is that in cutting the film for commercial release -- that is, for speed and impact -- certain elisions have been made that upset the clarity. Let me be specific, in hopes of enriching the experience -- the post-Vietnam New York sequences aren't "real," though they are photographed as if they are, at least initially. You aren't in New York, you're in Purgatory. But for reasons no one could quite explain, the images that made this clear were cut, almost completely garbling the clarity of the film.

Second, and more debilitating, the central idea of the movie is the benevolence of death. In Rubin's "Ghost" you saw this too: the upward ascension of the soul to a heaven that's literally a heaven, an endorsement of the pleasures of giving up and embracing Thanatos. It's like death as another step up the career ladder. Well, as Harry Cohn once said, include me out.

This seems a hothouse-orchid of an idea, by someone who hasn't seen much of the reality of the world. Any trip to an emergency room shows how desperately people cling to life, and how precious it is. One hates to generalize, but you're not too far wrong in arguing that life is always better than death.

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