Ending deals 'Mortal Thoughts' a fatal blow

April 19, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"Mortal Thoughts" breaks new ground, at least. It's the first movie to commit suicide right there on the big screen. BLAM, it shoots itself smack in the head and topples into the dust before your astonished, not to say confused and bewildered eyes.

A volatile account of a crippled, abuse-filled marriage on the lower rungs of the Bayonne, N.J., social ladder, it watches as punches turn into retaliatory murders, a mesh of cover-ups and contradictory stories by the survivors.

Then, with a flourish, the movie clumsily announces what really happened, and what really happened simply invalidates all that comes before it, and leaves you with a movie that at the lowest, most primitive narrative level simply makes no sense at all.

For a while, it's fun, of a low sort. Bruce Willis, sporting a Satanic goatee and a gleam of degenerate evil in his little piggy eyes, plays a Jersey lout whose idea of a good time is to slap his wife upside the head, just because he loves the echo. The wife,

played by Glenne Headly, gives almost as much as she gets. And her best friend and co-worker (at Headly's beauty parlor), played by Willis' wife, Demi Moore, is drawn intractably into their domestic madness.

A certain part of the pleasure is watching these refined people tear into the cheesy Jersey accents, particularly the heretofore demure Moore and Headly. The entire movie seems to take place in their nasal cavities as they beat their th's into d's, deconstruct verb and tense agreements, and baste everything in ample slatherings of the f-word, which stands in for all the parts of speech. Too many exchanges go like this: "Joyce, where's your ----ing purse, you ----ing ----, find it before I ---- your ----ing face," to which she replies, cleverly, "Awww, go ---- yourself in the ----ing -------!" Witty Noel Coward byplay it ain't, and if Noel Coward is listening from heaven, he's probably thinking, ---- this!

The movie is structured as a flashback during an interrogation as Demi Moore's Cynthia is being probed by Bayonne detective Harvey Keitel on her involvement in the explosive Urbanski marriage. In the early going, the tone is blackly comic, almost cruel. "When did you sense a problem in the marriage?" she's asked. "At the wedding," she replies.

But one problem is that the director recounts false flashbacks in exactly the same cinematic vernacular as real flashbacks; so there's never any really solid ground. Even when the movie's over, you're still not sure what was real and what wasn't.

Another is that the normally dreamy and romantic Rudolph is completely at sea with these working-class predators and he overcompensates with every cheap effect known to second-year film students: far too many slow-mo segues, jarring close-ups and the like. To be fair, poor Rudolph arrived on the set about a day before shooting started. To be truthful, he didn't do much with the materials. To be complimentary, he stayed out of the actors' way.

The acting is on quite a high level, f-words and all. Willis, really playing a supporting role, brings an enormous amount of vitality to Jimmy; if he were simply the relentless, didactic force of male evil, he and the movie would be pretty hard to take. And Headly, always spunky, is in this film a creature of true grit. Ironically it's co-producer Moore who gets most camera time but who comes off the dimmest in the triangle.

But that ridiculous ending! For one thing, it follows from no principle of detection; it's not a gimmick or a device. Moore goes to her car, remembers what happened, and decides to tell the cops. Some device in a movie about an investigation! And what she tells, as I say, simply declares the story we've seen null and void, folded, spindled and mutilated. The movie collapses into a pile of smithereens. Didn't anybody read the script until they got around to shooting it? They needed rational thoughts, not mortal ones.

Mortal Thoughts'

Starring Demi Moore, Glenne Headly and Bruce Willis.

Directed by Alan Rudolph.

Released by Tri-Star.

Rated R.


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