'Consenting Adults' doesn't command attention like Hitchcock can

October 16, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Consenting Adults" might be a base-line study for a self-help book entitled, "When Bad Movies Happen to Good People." Everyone in it has done first-class work, lots of money was spent on it, it looks sleek and as handsome as a Ferrari, and it stinks.

It must be the umpty-umpth lame Hitchcock rip-off; here, the text being plundered is the master's great "Vertigo," but to begin with, director Alan J. Pakula moves the festivities from Hitchcock's glorious San Francisco to Ted Turner's generic Atlanta. Atlanta! For San Francisco! Clearly, somebody's out to lunch!

Though it eventually gets around to being about an elaborate (and unbelievable) insurance scam, the movie begins with a study in neighborly covetousness. Richard and Priscilla Parker (Kevin Kline and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) seem to have a wonderful life; they own a small advertising agency that specializes in commercial jingles (he's a composer), they have a bright and beautiful daughter and they live in a beautiful house in the 'burbs. There's one problem: The paprika has gone. No zest anywhere. Negative pizazz.

All this changes when those zany Otises, Eddie and Kay (Kevin Spacey and Rebecca Miller), haul in next door, pulling a cigarette boat behind a Mercedes, giving off the scent of decadence as intoxicating as Chanel No. 5. Soon the two couples are the best of chums, as the dour Parkers are swept up in the affluent and carefree lifestyle of the Otises. It helps that each guy is subtly attracted to the other's wife and vice versa. It also helps that Spacey is the one verifiably living organism in the movie: vaguely disreputable, he's slick, confident, beguiling, marginally dishonest. He's as attractive as a new tie, and the oily Spacey really makes you feel his capacity to seduce. Meanwhile, poor Kline wanders around like he's just been conked on the head.

Soon enough, Eddie has a proposition for drippy Richard: one night: Why don't they just wander into each other's beds, take the pleasure of each other's sleepy wives, and then pretend like the whole thing never happened. In other words, free lunch -- sex with a new partner without responsibility or guilt. Richard, beside being dour, must be an idiot: he eventually says yes. (The moral of the movie seems to be: never, ever get involved in anything as morally sleazy as wife-swapping; if you're going to commit adultery, commit it, don't just stand there and fantasize about it!)

It's about this point that "Consenting Adults" turns into screenwriter Matthew Chapman's "My Favorite Hitchcock Ploy," this one being the dead wife who maybe isn't so dead. It unfolds swiftly when Richard comes back from jogging the next day to learn that the woman he slept with has been bashed to pieces by a baseball bat -- with his fingerprints on it.

Richard loses everything; Eddie takes over with his wife (Mastrantonio, a fine actress, is just a decoration in this movie). And the movie loses everything: It was Spacey's charisma that held it together; after the murder, we focus almost exclusively on the deeply uninteresting Kline, who suddenly turns into a kind of suburban Navy SEAL and begins assaulting houses from the ocean, punching out sentries and fighting men with full automatic weapons in an attempt to clear his name.

By that time, the movie has fallen into complete nonsense. Unlike Hitchcock, who sharpened his stories until they were airtight, Pakula seems content to limp through the most banal of plot contrivances, blithely ignoring plot holes the size of the Grand Canyon. If he doesn't care, why should we?

'Consenting Adults'

Starring Kevin Kline, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Kevin Spacey.

Directed by Alan J. Pakula.

Released by Hollywood Pictures.

Rated R.

**

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