There's no denying that George C. Scott is one of America's most watchable actors. When he's on screen he fascinates -- a presence who seems to swell and overwhelm anybody else. Yet Scott has fared better than he does in "Descending Angel," a new film premiering on cable tomorrow night (at 9 on the HBO premium service).
This is one of those movies that seems to just miss working at every turn, at least in part because last year's theatrical film "The Music Box," with Jessica Lange, dealt more persuasively with similar material.
In jowly, imposing style, Scott plays a post-war Romanian immigrant to the U.S. named Florian Stroia, successful and respected leader of a large immigrant community in Grand Rapids, Mich.
His daughter Irina (Diane Lane) is coming home for a visit to introduce her fiance Michael (Eric Roberts). As the credits roll, so do the young lovers in a sensual, semi-nude sex scene in a railroad compartment, which sets the erotic undertone of the coming conflict: that father and his daughter's betrothed will be jealous of each other.
But is there more here than mere paternal protectiveness? An ugly incident of vandalism upon the wall of Florian's mansion engages Michael's curiosity about his future father-in-law's past.
Through a variety of machinations, he comes to wonder whether the man whose daughter he loves might have taken part in a massacre of 800 Jews in a small Romanian village during the war.
At times "Descending Angel" is darkly fascinating. And there is a sharp edge to the script (by Robert Siegel, Grace Woodward and Alan Sharp) about America's eagerness to accept useful immigrants without worrying too much about their war histories.
"I aim for ze stars, but sometimes I hit London," quips Florian's chief accuser about rocket scientist Werner von Braun, for example, whose U.S. research followed involvement in Hitler's V-1 and V-2 rocket program.
But "Descending Angel" soon descends into a pretty predictable melodrama, and neither Roberts' nor even Scott's considerable overacting can save it.
Michael's passion to not only uncover the truth but to publicly expose it seems to spring from no identifiable source. And Irina's reaction to her father's recollections is equally unconvincing.
In the end, there's a stupid violent turn viewers will easily see coming and which seems merely a convenient way to stop a movie which had nowhere else to go.