It's trying time again in lackluster 'Trial by Jury'

September 10, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"Trial by Jury" is a trial by movie. And I say: Guilty, guilty, guilty. Fry the rat!

one of those too-dense thrillers that labors and wheezes mightily with all kinds of glib, unconvincing plot permutations and ends up, two long hours later, about seven inches from where it began.

The central character is Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, playing Valerie, a single mother and Manhattan boutique owner who ends up quite innocently on jury duty. In the case, tough guy prosecutor Gabriel Byrne is trying to put tough-guy gangster Armand Assante away, but Assante is fighting back with tough guy William Hurt.

But that's not what the movie is about. What it's about is a bunch of actors trying to stay in dialect, a psycho-drama so intense it all but completely commands the screen. Of the four principals, three are trying mightily to be what they are not and succeeding only intermittently. The British Whalley-Kilmer is trying to be American and the attempt reduces her voice to a mousy little squeak, very irritating. Byrne, who is Irish, is trying to be a New Yorker, and it comes and goes, sometimes in the same sentence. (When he and Kilmer-Whalley are talking, the effect is completely bizarre.)

Then there's poor Hurt, who is trying to be tough. This is a real stretch. A specialist in angst-twisted intellectuals, he's hopelessly miscast as an ex-cop who works as an "arranger" for Assante's gangster. He snarls, he grabs, he spits, he barks, he even has a little star-burst scar at the point of his elegant cheekbone, but the result keeps seeming like a guest-host skit on "Saturday Night Live" from the days when Hurt was actually hot.

Only Assante registers. As usual, he's by far the best thing in a bad movie, and his Rusty Pirone is a sleek, savage yet very sexy killer; he radiates body heat. Meanwhile Hurt, doing the seedy number, radiates body odor.

The elaborate but artificial plot bounces Whalley-Kilmer between the three guys like a pinball. She's picked by the Assante defense team as the mark to hang the jury and it falls to Hurt to pressure her into it, which he does by threatening her son. But he acts more like a depressed Irish poet than a syndicate enforcer, in order to set up his switcheroo at the halfway point, where he suddenly and completely unconvincingly becomes Whalley-Kilmer's champion.

There's not much in the way of psychological realism: Hurt's character, for example, has threatened her physically and threatened the life of her child, representing himself all the way as her "friend," an insincerity transparent as cellophane. Yet in the space of a few seconds, she bonds with him. Unbelievable, at least among the species called Homo Sapiens.

The director, Heywood Gould, who co-wrote, doesn't have a lot of luck. The whole movie feels flat and dead, as if no one working on it believes in it. This lack of spontaneity is particularly evident in the all-too-frequent scenes where the jury squabbles among itself over the verdict (the case is not very well drawn, either). Remember the pyrotechnics of "12 Angry Men"? There's nothing like that here, just some bland actors snapping stilted one-liners.

Underneath, "Trial by Jury" attempts to be that Thelma and Louisey thing, the feminist fable of empowerment. It demonstrates how Valery, used and abused all the way through, learns the ropes from her abusers and turns the tables on them. Again, not well developed: her "counter-attack" is pretty

one-dimensional stuff. I mean, all she has to do is read the directions on a knife: Point at bad guy. Stab.

It's an action, however, that is completely unrelated to her character, to the degree that she has any. She should have stuffed a Laura Ashley dress down his throat or suffocated him by cramming brie in his nostrils.

MOVIE REVIEW

'Trial by Jury'

Starring Joanne Whalley-Kilmer and William Hurt

Directed by Heywood Gould

Released by Morgan Creek

Rated R

**

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