'Reversal of Fortune' offers amusing look at contrasts

November 09, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

In "Reversal of Fortune," Jeremy Irons comes on like some sort of Eurotrash St. Sebastian, a sleek, icy geek who looks sensational in expensive clothes, smokes with more style than a regiment of hussars, and affects soigne indifference to the arrows the American legal system insists on shooting into his body.

Irons makes a stunning Claus Von Bulow, the titled swell who married and then possibly tried to murder his impossibly rich wife, Sunny, in their 56-room Newport, R.I., cottage one Christmas season a decade ago.

The movie, directed by Barbet Schroeder, is neither tragedy nor muckraking exercise in outrage: Rather, it's a comedy of manners, --ing after macabre giggles as it contrasts the bizarre Von Bulow with his ultimate defender, the earthy liberal guru of the law, Harvard professor and talk show gadfly Alan Dershowitz, who is played by Ron Silver. (It is drawn from Dershowitz's best-selling account.)

Some facts are beyond dispute: Sunny Von Bulow was discovered in an irreversible coma on the floor of her bathroom. Her suspicious children hired a private prosecutor and an investigator to sort through the evidence, a process which yielded a needle crusted with insulin. They convinced the Rhode Island district attorney to bring charges against their stepfather, their mother's principal heir, who had been present during Sunny's last night and curiously indifferent to her medical plight.

Claus Von Bulow was ultimately found guilty on two charges of attempted murder; he convinced Dershowitz, a constitutional expert, that an issue of constitutional law was at stake. Dershowitz, with an ad hoc crew of students who lived a kind of echt-Woodstock in the spare rooms of his Cambridge row house as they hacked out an appeal, masterminded the campaign that ultimately resulted in a reversal of the original verdicts.

The movie, however, is only marginally interested in guilt and innocence, and is at its least satisfactory as an account of a complex legal case, whose twists it never dramatizes adequately or explains with any precision. Nor does it offer a theory of the case, so much as several possible scenarios. What really happened to this most intriguing of social mysteries? Don't ask Schroeder. He doesn't give a damn.

What does amuse him, however, is the wonderful contrast between the ice-prince Claus and the earth-father Dershowitz, who is just as passionate, sloppy, committed and warm-hearted as Claus is detached, ironic and perverse. This is "The Odd Couple Meet at Sunny's Bedside." It's a laugh a minute.

Another ploy of Nicholas Kazan's script pays fewer dividends. Since the story is set after Sunny's vegetablization, the screenwriter had to come up with a way to make her an equal character in the drama. He's settled on an ambitious but unconvincing scheme: Sunny (Glenn Close), in an ironic voice that she no way had in life, "narrates" much of the story from the purgatory of her entombment in slumber. The device is somewhat reminiscent of William Holden's dyspeptic post-mortem voice-overs in Wilder's great "Sunset Boulevard" and the effect is the same: It places the events not in "reality" so much as in a mordant twilight zone. But too often the device fells like simple filler, a pause from the onward rush of events.

And the movie, if it profits from the chilly grandeur of the comically aloof Claus, who is not remotely romanticized (quite the opposite), does in fact suffer a bit from its romanticization of Dershowitz. As the ardent Silver plays him, under a curly wig and mustache that makes him look less like the semi-famous lawyer and more like Harpo and Groucho combined, Dershowitz is, like Portnoy's mother, just too good for his own good, if he says so himself. One pines to see a flaw in this paragon of rectitude and equality, this Chinese-food-eating, basketball-playing avatar of the masses, particularly after having seen the real man's frequent overbearing appearances on the talk show circuit. But no such luck.

Still, though "Reversal of Fortune" may be a bit out of balance, it remains one of the most wickedly entertaining movies to hit the Bijoux in many a month, thanks to Jeremy Irons' saintly geekhood.

'Reversal of Fortune' Starring Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close and Ron Silver.

Directed by Barbet Schroeder.

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated R.


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