Film about wannabe novelist is nothing to write home about

MOVIE REVIEW

June 03, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Not only did Lou Diamond Phillips star in "Ambition," he also wrote it.

Memo to Lou Diamond Phillips: Lou, don't quit your day job.

The movie is about a half-hour's worth of good "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" spun out to a seemingly endless hour and 45 minutes. It's like drifting in space while Lou Diamond Phillips whispers his personal philosophy of life into your ear. How did this guy get the clout in Hollywood to get his ditzy, half-developed screenplay turned into a $15 million movie? Where did all the grown-ups go?

Phillips, tall and rangy and striking looking, plays a Los Angeles bookstore manager with dreams of being a novelist. His first novel, a no-doubt important autobiographical opus, is rejected by the callous mercenaries of publishing, and thus he vows to write something that will really attract attention, as have many an embittered unpublished buba before him.

Smitten by the image of a recently paroled and nominally "cured" psychopathic killer on the TV, he sets out to befriend the man but not out of compassion so much as artistic ruthlessness. He draws the poor fool in, gradually seduces him into dependence then begins to apply subtle psychological pressures to goad him toward spectacular violence, which he intends to chronicle in a lurid rejection-proof book.

The reformed killer is played by Clancy Brown, a resourceful actor whose presence is always welcome. And Brown, who manages to be both vulnerable and dangerous at once, is the only one to emerge from the murky chaos with reputation intact.

Mostly, the film treats us to Lou's "descent-into-madness" routine, most of it achieved through twisted camera angles, weird hair (that pony tail looks tight!) and lighting effects that set his eyes aglow like the Terminator's.

But the director, Scott Goldstein, has no luck in finding a swift, clean line through the material; at the same time he doesn't quite have the skill to make Lou's cruelty to poor Brown wickedly enjoyable, as someone like Stephen Frears or Rob Reiner -- as they demonstrated in "The Grifters" and "Misery" -- could bring off. So the movie's an hour and a half of underlit mess punctuated by 15 minutes of gratuitous violence.

Yes, it is nice to see a movie about someone who wants to be a novelist rather than a director or an entertainment lawyer or an anchorman, but that lone charm hardly justifies its endless torments.

'Ambition'

Starring Lou Diamond Phillips and Clancy Brown.

Directed by Scott Goldstein.

Released by Miramax.

Rated R.

... **

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