'Separate Lives' plods through a predictable mystery formula, and yet . . .

September 11, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"Separate Lives" is more like a meteor shower than a movie: I counted three falling stars.

The first is poor, amiable, big-lug Jim Belushi, an engaging presence in B-grade studio films like "Red Heat" for a couple of years, but a guy who just never caught on big-time. He's still likable, however, and he keeps this nearly ludicrous mystery thriller watchable.

The second is Linda Hamilton, a Marylander no less. She got big fast in "The Terminator" and even bigger in "Terminator 2" but never found a role to consolidate her success and began the sad, downward trajectory toward the oblivion of "Separate Lives."

And finally, Vera Miles, who, alas, is more of a fallen than a currently falling star. I think Ms. Miles, a star in the '50s but not since, is in the film out of director David Madden's vanity. She, after all, can trace her career back to Hitchcock's great "Psycho," a heritage that Madden appears hungry to exploit by featuring her name so prominently in the credits, almost as a secret code to Hitchcock lovers. But the role is so much nothing -- a few brief lines in the first few scenes, obviously all shot in a single day, possibly even a single morning, before the first doughnut break.

The story is built around that most banal of tropes: The beautiful woman with the split personality. Hamilton, a psychiatrist and academic, asks one of her students, Belushi, for a favor. Since he's an ex-homicide detective, knowledgeable in security matters, she wants him to follow someone and find out what they're up to. Here's the twist: That someone is her.

He quickly learns that this sedate, chaste, classy woman who is named Lauren occasionally turns into Lena, a sleazy denizen of L.A.'s club scene, where, in an outfit that looks like a black leather parachute harness, she's the mistress of the club's cockney owner as well as a notoriously promiscuous star of the underground.

It soon turns out that her splintered personality may be tracked back to a grotesque episode as a child, where she witnessed her mother kill her stepfather and then herself. But as her world starts to disintegrate, as Lauren and Lena fight more openly, the screenplay portentously ladles in obvious suggestions that she herself, as a child, committed the crime and has broken into two halves as an act of self-protection.

Alas, most people will have figured out who the real culprit is by that time. There are certain rules that always hold true in movie mysteries, that everybody knows: If you have a character with a lot of lines but nothing much to do and he or she's the right age to have committed the crime 20 years ago, then you know -- guilty, guilty, guilty. And you also know: The suspense is gone, gone, gone.

The movie has other illiteracies. It seems not to know the difference between a psychiatrist (an M.D.) and a psychologist (a Ph.D); how could Belushi tell someone he's "studying to be a psychiatrist" when he clearly hasn't been to medical school? Also, yes, more gun stupidity: A cop looks at a bloody body and says, "Looks like he was shot with a Sig-Sauer." Duh! The recovered bullet may indeed tell you the caliber, which may lead to the gun and then to the model, but there's no way a wound alone could communicate brand-name information!

But "Separate Lives" shows one thing, which is the power of formula. Belushi is amiable, Hamilton a little over the top, the details unbelievable, the plot both too complex and too simple, the movie both too long and not long enough. Yes, but still I watched it and even if I knew the answer, darn it, I had to know for sure whodunit.

'SEPARATE LIVES'

Starring James Belushi and Linda Hamilton

Directed by David Madden

Released by Trimark

Rated R (Violence, nudity and sexual situations)

**

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