Good example of bad execution

February 21, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

If only sincerity and good intentions were enough.

In The Life of David Gale, they don't even come close, drastically outweighed as they are by hamfistedness, inane plot points and a smugness that suggests the movie has said all there is to say, when it's barely scratched the surface.

A screed against the death penalty that should succeed in converting no one to its cause, David Gale is one of those movies where you have to wonder if the creative team - director Alan Parker (Mississippi Burning) and first-time screenwriter Charles Randolph - has spent any time in the real world.

Real people watching what they've put up on-screen are going to be too distracted rolling their eyes and picking the many (and obvious) nits to find the movie anything but ludicrous.

Let's start, for instance, with the hero of our piece, a hard-bitten, crusading gal reporter (Kate Winslet) named Bitsey Blair (a name that would be ridiculous even in the comic books), who is summoned to conduct a series of death-row interviews with convicted rapist and killer David Gale, a former philosophy professor and ardent foe of capital punishment who's fallen on some tough times.

Tough time No. 1 was getting drunk and allowing himself to be seduced by a sultry and rather unpleasant former student who then cried rape. Though charges are eventually dropped (she drops out of sight before the trial), the taint of scandal remains, and Gale loses his job, his wife and his self-respect (which makes him drink more). About the only thing he has left is the friendship of Constance (Laura Linney), an associate who's as passionate a foe of the death penalty as he is.

Tough time No. 2 comes when Constance ends up dead. All evidence points to Gale, which is how he ends up where he is, four days from execution.

Tough time No. 3 came when he settled in Texas, where all those Lone-Star cowboys would just as soon kill a guy by lethal injection as sell him a 10-gallon hat.

But Bitsey is convinced of his innocence. There's no real reason she should be, certainly none we're let in on, but she's determined to piece together the clues and set Gale free.

Spacey, Winslet and Linney all do their jobs well enough, but are constantly sabotaged by a script that not only displays its sympathies too obviously, but manipulates itself too casually for comfort, much less believability.

Then there's the issue of just what world the movie inhabits. Bad enough its central character is a star reporter who preaches journalistic ethics with one hand while handing over $500,000 for an interview with the other. Then there's Zack (Gabriel Mann), an intern who's sent along with her so he can ... well, that's a good question: Outside of annoying her by smoking, what does he do?

Parker is an old hand at simplifying social issues, providing them with a good liberal bent and putting them on-screen. In the past, however, he's done it so skillfully that you either didn't notice or didn't care; it wasn't until audiences left the theater after Mississippi Burning that they felt manipulated. Some resented it, others felt he deserved an Oscar.

Here, Parker's no less manipulative, but he's considerably lazier. His scene shifts are marked repeatedly by a twirling camera and flashcards with all manner of descriptive adjectives on them: pain, betrayal, etc. The process is neither subtle nor particularly effective. During The Life of David Gale, you can feel his strings pulling at you the whole time, and the feeling isn't a pleasant one.

The Life of David Gale

Starring Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney

Directed by Alan Parker

Rated R (language, nudity, sexual situations, violence)

Released by Universal

Time 130 minutes

SUN SCORE * 1/2

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