Deadly Twist Movie review: Turnabout is fairly unsuccessful in 'Copycat,' a bloody failure as a feminist statement.

October 27, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Some people love the hammer, and some don't. If you're of the former persuasion -- you like a movie that smacks you in the middle of the forehead for a couple of hours -- then you ought to place yourself under "Copycat's" steel mallet. It punishes far more effectively than it entertains.

Cleverly, the movie inverts masculine stereotypes. Uncleverly, it reinvents them as feminine stereotypes. Still, the switch is enough to give the film an illusion of freshness.

The burnt-out, used-up detective, suffering the DTs when awake and the nightmares of hell when asleep, hiding behind a thousand-yard stare and a fear of all outdoors, is usually played by a guy, beginning with Jimmy Stewart in "Vertigo." Here, unprecedentedly, it's played by Sigourney Weaver, 6 feet of quivering palpitation. She's so haunted she's like Ripley newly arrived on Earth after "Alien." Don't go boo around her Dr. Helen Hudson: She'll pop a vein.

What has Dr. Hudson so spooked is her decades-long submergence in the culture of serial killers, with interviews and best-selling books and lecture tours and other manifestations of cult celebrityhood to show for it. The killers, as a class not stupid, have in turn paid her the compliment of elevating her into their pin-up girl, their "muse," as she puts it contemptuously. So she's retired behind the closed door of her apartment, after a nasty boy named Daryll Lee Cullum (a frightening cracker well-played by Harry Connick Jr.) puts her in a stainless steel noose in a woman's bathroom and almost sends her on a swinging trip.

What stirs Hudson from her immobilization is the arrival, in her native San Francisco, of a new player. This one not only kills, but he kills in the form of his earlier masters, re-creating murder scenes from such classics of the genre as David Berkowitz, Jeffrey Dahmer and Albert DeSalvo. She and she alone is able to read the clues and offers her help to a police force that mistrusts her, because a cop died in that bathroom.

But the detective in charge is a woman -- M. J. Monahan, played with pluck by pluck specialist Holly Hunter -- who realizes that Dr. Hudson's insights are unique. Thus the script, by Ann Biderman and David Madsen, contrives an interesting conceit: Man who hates women (and kills them) is hunted by women -- one of whom can't leave her home -- even as he is hunting them.

And if she can't leave her home, how can we get the bad boy inside to toy with her off and on? Thank God for the Internet: By turning Dr. Hudson into a shut-in who only steps out into cyberspace, the film clears the way for electronic invasion by creep, one of "Copycat's" nastiest themes.

The movie also trafficks in a troubling paradox. It rightly invests moral authority in the pursuers and it pretends to hate what it uncovers about the darkness at the center of the male heart.

Hunter and Weaver are big stars and have happily been going on talk shows to puff the film, which they represent as a feminist document, in that it empowers women. Well, yes and no: It also jerks a secret geek thrill out of dis- empowering women by disemboweling them, in one of the most grotesque ways seen in a major film.

Almost hypocritically, it revels in the ritual of sado-masochism practiced against helpless females, and it treats us not just to women-in-jeopardy scenarios but the detritus of such encounters: crime-scene photos, autopsies, forensic reports and the like. It takes us to a tough universe loaded with female corpses.

The director is the Brit Jon Amiel, heretofore a stranger to these parts. He helmed "Sommersby," far more romantic and less gritty. He may be too much of a pictorialist: He photographs reality as if it's a theme park, turning San Francisco into a magical city and Weaver's apartment into an absolute paradise, but hardly a believable one. In fact, the lushness of the physical appearance of the film is meant to stress the squalor of the crimes, but it may work against it.

And the rip-offs will be apparent to everybody familiar with the genre. Connick's wise psycho is simply Hannibal Lecter gone cornpone, the long ending bit in the apartment is straight out of "Rear Window," and the exploding house thing is from "Manhunter." (What would this movie do without good ol' Thomas Harris, much less Hitchcock?)

A5 But the style is high, and the pace is hammering.

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