'Body of Evidence': A criminal enterprise

January 15, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

She's a cruel mistress. Selfish and utterly without conscience, she does what she wants, and no amount of money or love can dissuade her from her hungers. Even if she loves you, it's no good unless she loves you all the way. Men die for her approval,and so do women, but whether or not she gives it is entirely up to her.

Of course I speak not, ladies and gentleman, of the phenomenon or the person known as Madonna. No indeed, I speak rather of the cruel and capricious mistress known as the motion picture camera, and no amount of publicity or number of gold records or magazine covers can buy her off. She sees what she sees, and it's always the truth.

In Madonna's case -- the film "Body of Evidence" -- the camera is utterly indifferent. The camera doesn't know about "Sex" and "Erotica" and the mega-tours: It sees a rather plain young woman trying desperately to engage it, to amuse it, to astonish it, but failing miserably. It yawns. The movie dies. Note to Madonna: Don't quit the day job.

The movie that is the pop star's vehicle is a somewhat listless courtroom drama distilled from the grubby femme fatale genre of filmmaking, much more ably served by Kathleen Turner in "Body Heat" and Teresa Russell in "Black Widow," going on back to Rita Hayworth in "Lady from Shanghai" and Jane Greer in "Out of the Past." Would that "Body of Evidence" had but a dram of the energy that those classics boast.

Madonna plays Rebecca Carlson, a Portland art dealer and sexual commando, who, when her elderly and heart-damaged lover is found dead of coronary arrest, is charged with murder. She literally loved him to death, the charge is, knowing his ticker would jam between the tick and the tock, and she would inherit his $8 million.

She engages a criminal lawyer named Frank Dulaney (Willem Dafoe) to defend her, and soon enough, as the case rolls through the courts, she and Frank start a smoky affair. But it's more than just sex: She's of the sexual avant-garde, representing the complete freedom of the libido, drawing her lovers into the more perverse realms of the senses, such as bondage, sado-masochism, that weird zone where pleasure and pain are bedfellows. Frank is a willing pupil, almost losing his soul as he tries to win the case.

Yet for all its vaunted heat, the movie is as torpid as a bad episode of "Mr. Ed." It's not merely that Dafoe and Madonna appear not to be particularly attracted to each other or that their many carnal interludes seem generic and ho-hum, drawn from the by-now-sleepy vernacular of '90s-style movie sex; it's really something more. The camera just doesn't respond to Madonna: Her features are flat and uninteresting, her body language is never particularly seductive and she's never able to burn through the screen. It's her eyes: They don't have it. Think how Kathleen Turner made herself an instant star in "Body Heat," because by the weird alchemy of her image on film, she seemed somehow bigger and more predatory, a great silky, devouring beast; her eyes were like lanterns of lust that just drew you into the heat until you were all burned up. By contrast, the act of filming Madonna shrinks her into a somewhat drab and mousy creature.

It would have helped -- but probably not much -- if the non-sexual aspects of the movie had been a little more convincing. No such luck. Courtroom drama may be a popular staple, but it's a fairly sophisticated and rigorous form, requiring skillful planting of clues, clever use of misdirection and sleight of hand, and a consistent nurturing of surprise. But screenwriter Brad Mirman hasn't mastered it: Ploys and gambits keep coming up in court that have never been discussed before and seem to arrive from nowhere, yet the defense team -- our point of view -- is always prepared to turn them to its advantage.

Worse, still, he has an eerie gift for the trite and the tinny. At moment in the film when prosecutor Joe Mantegna asks Dafoe if he "believes in karma," the line hits like an ingot dropped onto a glass coffee table -- arch, phony and preposterous. He gives Madonna a few camp ripostes that seem to come more from her own Madonna persona than from any well of character, as when she proclaims, "I ! That's what I do." It's a great laugh, but it's at the expense of, rather than in support of, the story.

"Body of Evidence" is guilty, guilty, guilty -- the crime is mediocrity and the sentence is two weeks or less in your local theater.

"Body of Evidence"

Starring Madonna and Willem Dafoe.

Directed by Uli Edel.

Released by MGM.

Rated R.

... **

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