'Hush,' full of mean spirit, isn't the screamer it tries to be

March 06, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Some people are just plain nasty.

Such as Martha Baring, as played by Jessica Lange in "Hush," a mother-in-law-from-hell film co-written and directed, with more good intentions than good sense, by newcomer Jonathan Darby.

She's not a full-bore loon. She's not a knife-wielding maniac. And she's not blessed with the sort of supernatural powers that would allow her to die at a crucial moment, only to be revived in time for the final, blood-curdling act.

Nope, she's just mean. And perhaps a tad too devoted to her son.

We're introduced to Martha the morning after her son, Jackson, and his girlfriend, Helen (Johnathon Schaech and Gwyneth Paltrow), arrive to spend Christmas at Kilronan, a down-on-its-luck Kentucky horse farm that's been in the Baring family for generations. And Lange wastes no time in letting us know Martha's a piece of work, oozing with so much double-edged Southern charm -- almost everything she says and does is a double entendre -- that even her son feels ill at ease when she's around.

That being the case, think how spooked Helen must feel. Only Helen, for reasons the script never really makes clear, takes a liking to Martha. Which is convenient, since the two women can work together at persuading Jackson to move back and take over the day-to-day operation of Kilronan.

That he does, along with Helen, who's now his wife and soon to be the mother of his child. But in Martha's world, while male Barings are always welcome, there's only room for one Mrs. Baring.

Darby, who shares the screenwriting credit with Jane Rusconi, deserves praise for taking the road less traveled; it would have been easy for him to churn out yet another "Fatal Attraction" clone, in which two women duke it out over one man, the winner being the one who can most effectively wield a knife.

Unfortunately, to make the film he wanted, Darby populated it with some of the dumbest characters since Jerry Lewis -- especially Jackson, who comes across as just this side of moronic. Schaech ("That Thing You Do") tries to do something with the character, but there's no there there.

What's worse, the film relies on too many conveniences to advance its plot. (If you were dumping on your mother-in-law inside her house, wouldn't you at least close the bedroom door?) The whole script would collapse like a house of cards if only the characters would talk plainly to each other -- especially a particularly irritating grandmother (a game Nina Foch) who knows the level of Martha's wickedness but insists on speaking in riddles.

Most embarrassing of all, the ending (which is way underdeveloped, perhaps because it was changed at the last minute) requires Helen, the morning after a particularly harrowing birth, to look as chipper and radiant as well, as Paltrow after a good night's sleep. Not likely.

Paltrow's Helen is a winning combination of vulnerability and allure; it's not hard to see why Jackson falls in love with her or why Martha sees her as a threat. But those are her character's strongest points, and she's too intelligent an actress for a part so shallow.

Lange seems to be having fun with her character; she's trying to be Bette Davis in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" but without the bad makeup. Perhaps she succeeds too well; Martha is so obviously bad news, it's hard to believe Helen ever falls for the act.

'Hush'

Starring Jessica Lange and Gwyneth Paltrow

Directed by Jonathan Darby

Released by TriStar

Rated PG-13 (violence, language, graphic birth scene)

Sun Score: **

Pub Date: 3/06/98

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