'Fatal Instinct' is merely funny no one will be dying of laughter

October 29, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Fatal Instinct" has a basic attraction: lots of handsome and beautiful people making horses' asses of themselves. It's really stupid. I like that in a movie.

The film is one of those joke-dense parodies inspired by (but not as inspired as) "Airplane" and the "Naked Gun" movies of the fabled Zucker-Zucker-Abrahams team, with an original impetus provided by the old Mad magazine in its "Scenes We'd Like to See" department.

The subject at hand is film noir, those dank and swozzled tales of lust and betrayal that emerged after World War II with their night city photography and their existential hubris, and that persist to this day in sunnier but smuttier suburbs. But, excuse me, didn't Carl Reiner already make this movie back when he called it "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid," starring Steve Martin, intercut cleverly in black and white with the real thing? Yes, he did, and it was much better.

Still, "Fatal Instinct" has its share of laughs as it composts together the plots of six famous or recent noirs -- Billy Wilder's great "Double Indemnity," Adrian Lyne's "Fatal Attraction," Paul Verhoeven's "Basic Instinct," Martin Scorsese's "Cape Fear," Lawrence Kasdan's "Body Heat" and Joseph Ruben's "Sleeping With the Enemy."

These six plots basically intersect in the person of Armand Assante's Ned Ravine, who, in order to accommodate them, must work 25 hours a day as the world's only homicide detective/defense lawyer. Thus, at one point in the madness he arrests his wife and then defends her.

Assante plays to the Leslie Nielsen model: Impeccably handsome and crisply authoritarian, he hews to the line, hits the mark and keeps his deadpan eyes on the ball as the movie veers into the ridiculous. He never breaks character, even in a mad scene where, in high heels and with his Dacron slacks rolled up, he is forced to dance a wild gypsy tango. (He's a very good dancer, by the way.) This performance doesn't deserve an Oscar so much as a medal.

The jokes come, the jokes go. Too many of them are on the seventh-grade level, with odors and waste products and other digestive inevitabilities ever prominent. The high cathedral of "Fatal Instinct" is the bathroom.

At the same time, the plots come and go, with each woman more or less functioning as the servomechanism. Kate Nelligan is Ned's wife, and she's the Barb Stanwyck of "Double Indemnity," complete to ankle bracelet and fedora sweaters and designs on her husband's insurance policy. Lucky Sean Young represents a trio of femme fatales: Kathleen Turner in "Body Heat," Sharon Stone in "Basic Instinct" and Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction." Sherilyn Fenn represents Julia Roberts in "Sleeping With the Enemy."

For Young, there's a subtext. Notorious in her private life for bizarre behavior -- stalking James Webb, getting thrown off the Warner Bros. lot while wearing a Catwoman costume, showing off her underarm hair on a Letterman appearance -- she plays on these vibrations of madness to good effect. Her take on Sharon Stone's legendary appearance before the homicide squad is the comic highlight of the picture. But will the movie make her the star she so yearns to be? Probably not, for she still seems more genuinely cracked than someone having fun playing genuinely cracked. Gave me the willies.

The movie is continually funny but it never gets the killer laugh. It goes like this: tee-hee, ho-ho, ha-ha, yuk-yuk, har-de-har-har . . . then starts over again at the tee-hee level. Alas, it never takes you where Zucker-Zucker-Abrahams took you, into that undiscovered country of oxygen debt where your lungs throb under a pneumonia of hilarity, the tears squirt down your face and your tongue flops in your mouth like an eel. You're laughing so hard you fear for your life. You cannot breathe and you do not care.

But "Fatal Instinct" is too busy minding its tee's and ho's to get you to the land of the busted gut.

"Fatal Instinct"

Starring Armand Assante, Sean Young and Kate Nelligan

Directed by Carl Reiner

Released by MGM

Rated PG-13

** 1/2

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