In 'Raising Cain,' De Palma returns to his roots with a lame Hitchcock rip-off

August 07, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

After his epic failure in "The Bonfires of the Vanities," Brian De Palma has gone back to his roots, returned to what nurtured him, reclaimed his heritage. In other words, he's ripping off the corpse of Alfred Hitchcock again.

Is this guy a ghoul or what? He belongs in a Charles Addams cartoon. He's like the guy in the old Nichols-May routine about a funeral counselor who offers funerals that cost $5,000, $3,000 and $29.95. When, after a pause, the bereaved Nichols asks grief-lady May what kind of a funeral could possibly cost twenty-nine ninety-five, she says, "A man comes and takes the body and does God knows what with it."

What he's done with it this time is to uncork a stinky parody of "Psycho" that works as neither true thriller nor camp excess. It's a sluggish, tasteless absurdist work; it ought to be proceeded in the theaters by a man carrying a little bell and crying "Unclean! Unclean!"

John Lithgow, in a convincing imitation of a Smithfield ham, plays a tortured child psychologist who is haunted by an evil twin. As Dr. Carter Nix, he's a touchy-feely superdad, with the "have you hugged your kid today" bumper sticker plastered onto his forehead. As Cain Nix, he's a mean and rotten scuzzbucket, who has no problem murdering mothers and kidnapping babies, a trait which in De Palma's world is recognized as a colorful minor eccentricity. But these two boys have more in common than first meets the eye, and if you don't get it early, you won't get it late.

As the movie opens, he/they kills a mom and kidnaps a child and stashes it at a motel. Then he kills a baby sitter and stashes her kid at the same motel. In between, he kills his own wife and kidnaps his own child.

Except that, in the movie's extremely irritating scheme of dream sequences and murders that aren't murders, his wife survives and with her lover and the cops, tracks him down to the motel.

That's about it, except the plot structure supporting these happenings is so lame it's almost, but never quite, funny. There's a point in which Lithgow escapes from the police station -- itself a ludicrous invention, as it looks like an upscale shopping mall exactly like the one in which I saw the movie -- because everybody is asleep. Everybody. Cops, criminals, pedestrians. Asleep. Asleep!

None of the performances could be categorized as much beyond adequate, and De Palma, who in the movie's brief running span makes jokes about child abuse, kidnapping, murder, cancer victims, chemotherapy, old age and heroism, even humiliates his own cast. The doctor's wife is played by the nearly colorless Lolita Davidovich, and her best pal by the nearly colorless Mel Harris. Why these two? My hunch is the noses.

Both these exceedingly attractive women happen to have WASP dream noses, so familiar from the cartoons in Playboy: you know, the extravagantly upturned little pert ramp of a nose, cute enough for a pixie to ski down. And in one point, he turns them profile, nose tip to nose tip, so that we can laugh at the two mirror-image schnozzes. They look like a cocktail glass! What a creep!

"Raising Cain" is the quagmire of De Palma's own vanity.

'Raising Cain' Starring John Lithgow and Lolita Davidovich.

Directed by Brian De Palma.

Released by Universal.

Rated R.

*

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