Bungle in the Jungle

'Instinct,' which tries to sell itself as a psychological thriller, is missing a few links

June 04, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff

The best instincts of Anthony Hopkins and Cuba Gooding Jr. should have told them to stay as far away as possible from "Instinct," an obvious, underwhelming and downright silly tale of a dude who goes ape a little too literally for comfort.

That would be eminent primatologist Ethan Powell (Hopkins), who has spent years studying apes in their native Rwandan habitat -- not so much, it seems, to learn more about them, but to become one of them. Which he does, a fact that becomes clear when he and a big male ape (Stan Winston's robotic primates are marvelous) touch hands.

But something goes terribly wrong with Powell and, more importantly, with the movie. The good doctor gets ticked off mightily, so mightily that he kills a man, reverts totally to his primal self and stops communicating with the rest of the world.

What was this terrible thing? What could so enrage a guy who lives with apes that he'd decide killing humans is a good and necessary thing?

My 11-year-old nephew could probably figure this one out, but "Instinct" spends the better part of two hours and uses all sorts of hot-shot psychiatrists to figure out what caused the good doctor's meltdown. Common sense suggests the answer wouldn't be obvious -- I guessed that he must have had some terrible reaction to a screening of "King Kong," or maybe he was Dian Fossey's long-lost brother -- but it is.

The dimmest of the movie's dim bulbs is Theo Caulder (Gooding), a psychiatrist in training who sees Powell as his ticket to the big time -- the chance to make himself a reputation, write a best seller and spend the rest of his days pontificating before a bunch of undergrads.

After some begging, he gets assigned to Powell's case and soon finds himself in a hellish mental institution. Before him sits the Wild Man of Borneo -- unshaven, shaggy-haired, wild-eyed (when he's not doped up) and menacing. So what does Caulder do? Why, hand this guy a sharp object, naturally.

"Instinct" is the most clueless movie since "Clueless," and no one in this film has Alicia Silverstone's legs (or the benefit of source material from Jane Austen).

Only Maura Tierney, as Powell's emotional train wreck of a daughter, and old pro Donald Sutherland, as Caulder's cagey mentor, manage to act themselves out of the murk.

Gooding is simply too vibrant an actor to play such an imbecilic part in a movie that has him playing a character who is equal parts McMurphy in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and Clarice Starling in "Silence of the Lambs."

And speaking of "Silence," whatever possessed Anthony Hopkins, surely one of the greatest actors of his generation, to accept a role that's nothing more than a warmed-over Hannibal Lecter? Once Powell finally starts talking, he spends most of his time babbling to Caulder about control and what "civilization" really is and how Caulder needs to do something (it takes a long while before we find out what) to fully understand his patient.

Hopkins speaks in nearly the same tone of voice he used so memorably as Lecter, and his verbal sparring with Caulder is clearly meant to remind us of the memorable duels between him and Jodie Foster's Starling. Unfortunately, all it does is hammer home the point that "Silence" was a great movie, while "Instinct" is not.

"Instinct"

Starring Anthony Hopkins and Cuba Gooding Jr.

Directed by Jon Turteltaub

Rated R (Language, violence)

Running time 126 minutes

Released by Touchstone Pictures

Sun score *

Pub Date: 6/04/99

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