Strong cast, weak `Gift'

Review: Good actors working with a pitiful script will make most want to return this `Gift' as soon as possible.

January 19, 2001|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN FILM CRITIC

Cate Blanchett is too good an actress for hooey like this.

"The Gift" is another foray into the rural recesses of the Deep South, courtesy of Hollywood's favorite hick, Billy Bob Thornton (who co-wrote the screenplay with Tom Epperson). But outside of a strong (and largely misused) cast and an abundance of moody atmosphere, there's precious little to recommend this exploitative mess.

Blanchett is Annie Wilson, a widowed psychic who ekes out a living in the hard-luck burg of Brixton, Ga., by doing occasional "readings" for her neighbors. Ostensibly, they're card readings designed to reveal just enough about the future to put people on their guard.

But in reality, Annie seems to function more like Mary Worth than Jeane Dixon; generally, she's there to comfort the afflicted and try to make them feel good about themselves. That's true of Valerie Barksdale (Hilary Swank, in a role she must have agreed to before her Oscar for "Boys Don't Cry"), a chronically abused wife whom Annie is constantly urging to leave her lout of a husband, Donnie (a plenty menacing Keanu Reeves). And that's especially true of Buddy Cole (Giovanni Ribisi), an emotionally crippled car mechanic who sees Annie as the only thing that can get him through the day.

Now, I think we can all understand that ESP must be, at best, a mixed blessing; it's fine when the power helps us see who's going to win the Super Bowl or something but a drag when it tells us about impending doom without also cuing us in on how to avoid it.

This being a thriller movie and all, it's a safe bet that Annie's gift is going to get her into trouble. And that it does, when the town's resident rich, spoiled daddy's girl, Jessica King (Katie Holmes), disappears on the eve of her wedding to school principal and upstanding citizen Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear). Asked to help in the search for the missing woman, Annie begins having visions of her lying naked in a tree, apparently under water and most decidedly dead (these visions, as you can see, are often complicated things).

This leads the police to find Jessica's body in a pond conveniently located on the property of that mean Donnie Barksdale. Which leads to his arrest and trial, complete with a courtroom scene so ridiculous - a prosecutor tests Annie's powers by asking her to guess how many fingers he's hiding behind his back, without any objection from the judge - it wouldn't seem out of place on "The Beverly Hillbillies."

Eventually, a verdict is reached and justice is served. Maybe. For Annie's not so sure; naked Jessica keeps turning up in her head, suggesting there's work yet to be done.

Sure, there's work to be done, but on this movie, not on the case. Wouldn't it be nice, for instance, if Swank were asked to do more than let her lower lip quiver in fear? Then there's the little matter of the plot point wherein Annie spies Jessica doing the dirty at a party, with a guy definitely not her fiancee, just hours before her disappearance. For no discernible reason, Annie never bothers to tell anyone about this little detail.

And then there's poor Katie Holmes, who makes for a fine spoiled brat but is maneuvered into an unnecessary topless scene that seems designed solely to attract those who haven't seen enough of her on TV's "Dawson's Creek."

Blanchett does her best to lend this mess some class, and her performance as a woman smart enough to realize she's not nearly as brave as she acts is almost worth sifting through the rest of the film. It's just a shame her efforts aren't in service of a movie that deserves them.

`The Gift'

Starring Cate Blanchett, Keanu Reeves, Greg Kinnear

Directed by Sam Raimi

Released by Paramount Classics

Running time 112 minutes

Rated R (violence, language and sexuality/nudity)

Sun score: * 1/2

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