Imagination falls victim to assassination plot of 'The Pelican Brief'

December 17, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Julia Roberts is certainly beautiful, but she isn't an actress. And "The Pelican Brief" is certainly handsome, but it isn't a movie. It isn't even brief!

The most depressing example of routinized, button-pushing filmmaking of the week, it's an almost featureless exercise in chase mechanics and posturing that masquerades as performance.

The movie gets in trouble almost from the get-go: For a thriller, it has a premise so lame it defies comprehension. Roberts, playing a young law student named "Darby Shaw" (phony-cute names are a dead giveaway of an impoverished authorial imagination), sits down one morning to try and figure out why two Supreme Court justices -- a conservative and a liberal -- have been murdered in a single evening.

Looking at their cases, she comes up with a theory, which she types up in a brief. And that's it. She does no investigating, she uncovers no clues, she simply uses materials available in any law library, but her conclusions are so incendiary that, passed on to the FBI and entered in the national security mainstream, she becomes the target of a mysterious assassination team that goes after her and everybody else she knows or talks to. This is every assassination buff's secret fantasy, which perhaps explains its preposterousness.

If the aftermath of the Kennedy and King assassinations has taught us anything at all, it's that legions, nay, fleets, of researchers will instantaneously begin poring through

documents and files at the first drop of blood, in search of screwball interpretations that can be twisted into best sellers. Assassination theory, far from being a cottage craft as the movie has it, is a growth industry these days!

Inane though it is, the premise yields the central mechanism of the movie: people we don't know chasing people we don't care about. Really, that's it, an elaborate game of chutes and ladders in picturesque locales.

Roberts bounces around going Eeeek! and Ohhhh! while strange men who are only identified by their hairstyles -- the man with sideburns, the man with big hair, and so forth -- keep trying to kill her. Director Alan J. Pakula doesn't bring any wit or imagination to these sequences either. The methodology of the film is full of wheezily ancient conventions: Delicate Pakula won't show violence per se, so he always cuts away at the sound of a shot and shows us, say, blood splashing on a TV screen.

At the same time, as it churns along, the movie is forever hitting us over the head with phony revelations -- the music informs us that this here scene is very important -- concerning wiretapping and other forms of electronic eavesdropping, but we never feel anything because the overall picture of the conspiracy remains so nebulous.

And it turns out to have no organic relationship whatsoever to the form of the movie. The McGuffin happens to be a completely standard thriller trope about an unseen oil magnate who wants ** certain concessions in order to loot the petroleum under a hunk of Louisiana bayou, as the movie explains in a greasy lump of exposition at the three-quarters mark.

But it could have been any other standard thriller trope -- say, the Supreme Court justices were KGB plants and the liberal GRU was trying to purge them before they were discovered, or they had both raped a brilliant law student in the '50s when they were young men and now her younger brother had risen to power in the Mafia and was exacting revenge -- and the movie would have been exactly the same.

In fact, so indifferently plotted is "The Pelican Brief" that a major loose end -- the murder of a terrorist killer just as he's about to kill Darby -- is fluffed away in another lump of exposition at the end, when FBI chief James B. Sikking explains all, as if in an afterthought.

Roberts is superficially picturesque but never remotely compelling, not that the wooden dialogue and awkward staging is any help. She has essentially two expressions -- radiant smile and not-quite-as-radiant smile, and when she's called upon to register grief, her crying sounds more like she's stifling the giggles. Maybe she is. As her eventual No. 1 ally, a Washington Herald reporter, Denzel Washington is appealing but almost completely predictable, except in one absurd scene where, in his cabin in the woods (all reporters have them, don't you know?), he hears noises and grabs his rifle! A liberal Washington reporter . . . with a rifle? What is this, a comedy?

Only John Lithgow, as Washington's editor, brings any energy to the picture, and Robert Culp has an amusing turn as a shallow, slightly Reaganesque president. Pakula's direction is as colorless as his screenplay -- this is detail-free, ambience-free filmmaking. Set in the multiple worlds of the law, big-league journalism and the White House, it never begins to seem authentic. He leaves no stone unturned in his quest to touch base with every single thriller cliche in the book, all while hewing closely to the well-trodden path.

"The Pelican Brief"

Starring Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington

Directed by Alan J. Pakula

Released by Warner Bros.

PG-13

*

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