'Guilty as Sin': Its greatest offense is a yawning lack of cleverness

June 04, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

In "Guilty as Sin," Don Johnson plays the role he was made for -- a geek bearing a gift: himself.

The movie is essentially a remake of "Jagged Edge," without the jags or the edge. Johnson plays the socially prominent, sexually menacing yet darkly attractive defendant in a complex murder case, while the beautiful lawyer who defends, possibly loves and is terrified by him is played by Rebecca De Mornay. Not even close!

Johnson is suspected of giving his wealthy wife the heave-ho from 26 floors up to a rude landing on Chicago's Michigan Avenue, and his prints are all over the window and the sill. His defense is that his neurotic wife set him up to take the rap for her suicide. An accusatory note by the victim is a mark against him; that he was seen leaving the building before she fell is a mark for him.

However, making the defense most trying is that he keeps behaving toward his lawyer like the sort of guys stalker laws were designed to chill out. He follows her, he investigates her, he noses into her life, he breathes heavily on her neck. When she tries to dump the case, a judge refuses to let her, the movie's most preposterous plot point.

What "Guilty as Sin" is truly guilty, guilty, guilty of, however, is the worst sin a thriller can commit: It lacks cleverness. These movies truly stand or fall on issues of plot and that crash you just heard wasn't poor wifey but the whole movie hitting the street. Forget the last twist, you keep waiting for a first twist, but the movie unfolds with a kind of deadening straightforwardness and is wholly incapable of producing those moments of gasping surprise which are the whole point. It's as far from "Presumed Innocent" as it is from "Jurassic Park."

Johnson seems trying desperately for an image overhaul, the good-guy thing not having panned out. He was literally preposterous as a New Republic writer in the remake of "Born Yesterday" and this is more in line with his modest talents: His David Greenhill is a sleek, predatory reptilian sort, a bit prissy but so confident of his own cool blond beauty that he's somewhat fascinating. The sense of narcissism that has undercut his other roles here feels authentic and appropriate. His profile is also much better than De Mornay's and for some reason -- she should sue director Sidney Lumet -- the movie offers up far too many shots of the two of them nose to nose in the postures of opposing linemen, and it doesn't do her any favors.

De Mornay is clearly trying to consolidate the brush with stardom she achieved in "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle," moving to the movie's center and offering a portrait of heroic resilience and brilliance. Yet her character is so hard and smart and capable, so doll-perfect and remorseless, it's difficult to sympathize with her. Glenn Close in "Jagged Edge" let you see a center and a woman; De Mornay, by contrast, is all hard edges, sharp angles and perfect legs.

Worse, one of the movie's dumb gambits is a ploy where she literally tries to frame him in an extremely crude way; it dilutes our investment in her moral authority and, far worse, makes her seem stupid. By the weird law of moral suspension in feature films, it's much easier to forgive a crook than a moron.

Yet the film is marginally engrossing. Lumet, an authentically great director, who as of late has been moping his way through pedestrian commercial projects like "A Stranger Among Us" (which starred Johnson's wife Melanie Griffith), has given it a sleek surface and his vision of Chicago is glacially cool and hushed, as opposed to his teeming New York cityscapes. But "Guilty as Sin" is fundamentally cable fare for people who can't figure out how to work their channel switchers.

"Guilty as Sin"

Starring Don Johnson and Rebecca De Mornay

Directed by Sidney Lumet

Released by Hollywood Pictures

Rated R

**

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