Stories set in New Orleans inevitably have one great thing going for them: New Orleans.
And "Storyville" revels in its New Orleansness, loving the drippy moss and the gelid, murky swamps surrounding the most baroque, decadent and delightful city in America; it loves the tawdry sleaze of the French Quarter and the remote mansions of the town's more genteel boroughs.
The city's singularity is absolutely appropriate to the movie. In fact it is the movie. It's one of those complex films noirs tracking three generations worth of deceit, an illegally gotten fortune, a suicide that may be murder, a murder that is definitely a murder, porn, corrupt cops, duck hunting and aikido. As the great Cole Porter says, who could ask for anything more?
Actually, a little coherence wouldn't have hurt. Derived from an obscure Australian novel called "Juryman" and transplanted to the Big Easy by Mark Frost, who with David Lynch created the legendary "Twin Peaks" of TV fame and movie infamy, the movie follows young liberal lawyer and dissolute ex-drunk Cray Fowler in joint attempts to win a seat in Congress, solve the suicide of his father and prevent a beautiful Eurasian woman from taking the fall for a murder he knows she didn't commit.
But your spirits will fall, as mine did, when you learn that Cray is played by milky little James Spader, the boy Sandy Dennis. Why does this guy hem and haw, hitch and twitch, act sensitive and befuddled all the damn time? He and the other twitchy one -- you know, Andrew McCarthy -- should be legally enjoined from performing until they agree to STAND STILL at least a little.
Frost has much better luck with his milieu -- steamy, decadent bouillabaisse of old Gothic South and new heartless South -- than he does with the plot and the main actor. Still, he's to be congratulated for at least trying to tell a coherent story; there's nothing of the willed and precious opaqueness of motive and occurrence that became so irritating the longer "Twin Peaks" kept unrolling, nor is there quite the sense of sordidness, the proudly displayed atrocity, that Lynch used to keep the audience awake, though the materials nevertheless are entirely deserving of the R-rating.
Of the others in the large and dense cast, Joanne Whalley-Kilmer has a nice turn as prosecuting attorney, Michael Parks as a tough, corrupt cop is very scary, and a bald Michael Warren turns up as another lawyer. In fact, although they enjoy no scenes together, by coincidence both Warren and Charles Haid -- Hill and Danko from the great old "Hill Street Blues" -- appear in "Storyville."
The movie will play at the Charles for a week.
Starring James Spader.
Directed by Mark Frost.
Released by 20th Century Fox.
... ** 1/2