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TRUE CRIME
Directed by Ron Howard

"I hope it's better than The Truman Show," said the woman in line behind me at the publicized "sneak preview" of EDtv. Afterward, a man in my row declared, "That was a lot better than The Truman Show." Pretentious high-concept films like The Truman Show often garner accolades and let down audiences. EDtv, another film about a man who lives his life on-camera, isn't my favorite kind of movie, either. It gets caught between shriveling satire and upbeat family entertainment, and it runs a half-hour too long. But EDtv has funny stretches and agreeably loose performances, whereas all The Truman Show gives us is Jim Carrey under glass. At its best, EDtv suggests that manufacturers of big-screen sitcoms, who are merely trying to do a proficient job of entertaining, come closer to the fabric of American life than artistes who are trying to make a statement. At its worst, it proves that even a light parody needs a more astringent point of view than the belief that love conquers all.

Unlike the hero of The Truman Show, the star of EDtv knows that he's on television: In exchange for a hefty payment, he allows producers for the San Francisco-based True TV cable channel to broadcast his life live, 24 hours a day. The prime mover of the series, a True TV executive (Ellen DeGeneres), acknowledges her show's predecessors (PBS's An American Family, MTV's The Real World) but intends to go beyond them. She vows to present uncensored, unedited action: She hopes to rouse interest in a lineup so tired that the Gardening Channel beats it regularly in the ratings. In Capraesque fashion, this whip-smart exec eventually develops a guilty conscience, but until then DeGeneres brings more snap to her lines than she did on her own TV show. And the filmmakers behind EDtv keep pace with Web surfers who've seen real-life chronicles unfolding in real time on the Internet.

After the squeaky-clean Truman Show, it comes as a relief that EDtv doesn't duck the obvious questions, like what happens when the hero goes to the bathroom or has sex. (As it works out, he gets private time to relieve himself but not to make love.) Ed Pekurny (Matthew McConaughey) doesn't set out to be a TV star. He gets discovered when he attempts to bolster the chances of his exhibitionist brother, Ray (Woody Harrelson), during an audition taping at a San Francisco bar. What's pleasing is the comic spectacle of Ed, his folks, the team at True TV and the people in the audience responding in valiant, goofy, sappy and vain ways to a dehumanizing process. What's frustrating is the moviemakers' tendency to force them all into sitcom "closure" without taking the characters to the limit.

The most pungent elements of the movie are the brothers' relationship, the casting of McConaughey and Harrelson, and their interplay as performers. Ray, who services video equipment, is an out-and-out loon; Ed clerks at a North Beach video store and is a covert loon with sly seductive powers. If director Ron Howard and screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel had used these two guys' chemistry to fuel the film instead of diluting it with halfhearted romance and broad turns about families behaving badly, they might have ended up with a fraternal love-hate classic instead of a mildly diverting burlesque.

The filmmakers have a handle on the symbiotic relationship in which an apparent lout like Ray and a seemingly sensitive soul like Ed really are mates under the skin. Ray is a hustler and an easy lay. He ridicules his sister and her inept lounge-singer boyfriend just to juice up his brother's show; he seizes every chance to promote his dream of establishing "Ray's Gym"; and he immediately takes advantage of his newfound fame by cheating on his girlfriend, Shari (Jenna Elfman). Yet he doesn't mean to hurt anybody.

Ray thinks Edtv is the family's ticket out of Nowhereland. After all, Ray and Ed are two guys in their 30s who just clock their time at work, shoot pool, drink beer and keep trim for a fight that never comes. Any break in the limbo must be a sign of hope. Ed is like Ray on Ritalin. Although he's more low-key, more centered, Ed has his own streak of showmanship -- that's one reason DeGeneres and her gang like him. The Pekurnys hail from East Texas, and Ed demonstrates that he can turn his rural accent on or off like a wily country lawyer or a congressman.

Of course, to enjoy the film at all you have to accept the sitcom logic that a good-looking fellow like Ed can quip as well as anyone at True TV and settle for a low-paying job at a video store. Still, EDtv is entertaining whenever Harrelson and McConaughey team up or face off. Whether as Larry Flynt or as the life force in The Hi-Lo Country, Harrelson embodies both the humor and the danger of relentless push. As Ray he manages to be a lovable egomaniac. He acts as if he feels that it's his duty to be a cartoon stud, even if he's smart enough to know that the role is self-destructive. His skewed glare, like a bent laser, contrasts uproariously with McConaughey's sweet gleam as Ed. McConaughey seemed to find his celluloid footing in last year's The Newton Boys, and in EDtv he appears at home as a modest man who sees the fun in exploitation and is briefly blinded by it. Both as an actor and as Ed the budding TV character, he knows how to take genuine titillation or delight and italicize it for the camera, to potent farcical effect. He expresses the unruly streaks in common decency.

Director Howard and writers Ganz and Mandel are at their sharpest when they draw the ways Ed's family and the public initially react to True TV. His mother (Sally Kirkland) turns theatrical (she sets visions of Blanche Du Bois spinning in DeGeneres' head), his frail stepdad (Martin Landau) remains determinedly down-to-earth (he tells Ed he'd yell for Ed's mom himself, but he'd die), and his mystery dad (Dennis Hopper) suddenly shows up at his door. At one point, someone pushes a promotional CD into Ed's hands and says his band has a blind guy in it and is called Not All of Us Can See. For a while, the ensemble resembles the giddy everyday grotesques from a Preston Sturges movie.

Pundit-mania heats up: Harry Shearer, who performed a similar function in The Truman Show, hosts panels with the likes of Arianna Huffington and Michael Moore. And polling goes into overdrive. The videophiles who rooted for Elfman's Shari to dump Ray for Ed soon tell USA Today that she isn't good enough for him -- they prefer Jill (Elizabeth Hurley), a glamorous aspiring actress. You can see why Shari, a strapping UPS gal without airs or illusions, finds Ed attractive and why she hooks up with him after Ray cheats on her.

It's too bad that their bond obstructs the comedy. For one thing, Ray ceases to be central to the action. And if that USA Today poll is one funny idea, it's also a dire turning point. Soon after it appears, Shari beats a retreat; Ed loses his bearings; his mom, dad and stepdad grow nuttier; and the movie instructs us on what we already know about the wages of fame. Shari begins to symbolize unspoiled, media-free humanity.

Howard, Ganz and Mandel have a Three Bears view of comic ingredients: nothing too cold, nothing too hot. (Even Shari learns to compromise.) So the director and his writers ultimately reduce the drama to Ed clearing his head and cementing his love with the people closest to him: Shari, Ray and -- because father-son rapprochement is key to family entertainment in the '90s -- his stepdad, Al.

EDtv sets up Ed as a man of the people, then flirts with portraying him as a victim of the people. It's the same sort of dead end Capra ran up against in Meet John Doe. Howard is a lot more deft at depicting the onlookers than Peter Weir was in The Truman Show; this movie's fluctuations mirror the fleeting allegiances of our media-permeated life more acutely than that pristine fantasy. But Howard still has a hard time persuading us that the TV masses will react positively to his film's happy ending.

To me, the film makes sense -- perhaps inadvertently -- as a fable about privacy in the era of Kenneth Starr. The True TV czar (Rob Reiner) decides he hascontinued on next pagecontinued from previous pageunlimited access to Ed's life. His cameras uncover one family scandal after another, most of which come about by way of video entrapment. The public maintains a strained devotion to Ed even after he proves to be a hapless lover. The only way Ed can regain control of his life is with some Larry Flynt-like scandal-mongering of his own. The resolution leaves the House of Pekurny standing. By the end, the movie audience, like the electorate, is less satisfied than strung-out and exhausted.

Opens March 26.
-- Michael Sragow

COLUMBIA PICTURES 75th ANNIVERSARY FILM FESTIVAL

The history of what has come to be known as "the classic Hollywood cinema" (a period lasting roughly from 1910, when a handful of filmmakers set up shop in Southern California, until the late 1950s, when the competition of television, a steady increase in independent production and a series of antitrust rulings combined to change the way movies were made) is by and large the history of the film studios. At their most powerful, the major studios controlled every detail of the making of a film, from the initial development of an idea to the casting of the smallest bit player, from the advertising campaigns to the theaters in which it played. Theirs was a factory system that, in its heyday, churned out hundreds of features, serials, newsreels and shorts every year; produced hit songs; made stars and starlets out of ordinary young men and women; and somewhere along the way had time to create a few masterpieces like Bringing Up Baby, King Kong, Singin' in the Rain and Out of the Past.

Though the studio system ceased to function in any meaningful way some 40 years ago, the studios themselves live on as shadow versions of themselves, modern media conglomerates that dabble in everything from publishing and cable TV to hotels and ski resorts but still thrive on the mystique of their earlier glory. Although their film libraries -- that warehouse full of films eternally ripe for repackaging, repromoting and occasionally remaking -- help preserve their images, it's the names themselves that solidify them. We continue to recognize their logos -- the roar of Leo, the Paramount mountain, the Fox fanfare, even the long-defunct RKO radio tower -- though the empires once signified by these images have fallen.

What, then, are we really celebrating with a program like the two-week retrospective of films beginning at the Tivoli this Friday to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Columbia Pictures? The end of an era? The endurance of a corporate name, even though the company itself is now just one tiny component of the vast Sony empire? A chance to see a few popular classics on a big screen again? A new chapter in the revision of film history? The answer is: all of the above.

Columbia has always held an odd position among the film studios. Founded in 1922 as CBC Film Sales Corp. (this is actually the 75th anniversary of its 1924 name change) by Joe Brandt, Jack Cohn and Harry Cohn (the last renowned as the crassest and most unpleasant figure ever to head a major film studio), it began as part of Poverty Row, the handful of small studios whose films were made cheaply, quickly, but seldom well. In its early years, Columbia specialized in cheap back-lot Westerns and comedies. Though it would occasionally borrow a few bigger performers from the other studios for a slightly more expensive production, its low-budget reputation was hard to shake.

The man who did more than anyone to turn Columbia into a major studio was Frank Capra, the studio's golden boy in the 1930s. Capra had been hired by Harry Cohn in the late 1920s (reportedly because his was the first name on an alphabetical list of unemployed directors) and quickly became the studio's most important asset. After a string of minor successes, Capra's 1933 film Lady for a Day brought the studio its first major Academy Award nomination; a year later, he made an even bigger score when It Happened One Night won awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Actress, a record sweep that would remain unmatched for 42 years. Capra's films of the '30s -- Lost Horizon, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town -- balanced by a successful string of screwball comedies such as Howard Hawks' Twentieth Century, Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth and John Ford's The Whole Town's Talking, took the studio off Poverty Row for good.

Despite its string of successes, Columbia's image remained modest (a new reference book defines the studio as "humble yet spirited"), never quite developing as distinct a character as high-class MGM or idealistic Warner Bros. The talent pool was never especially deep; Columbia instead allowed directors and performers from other studios a chance to make some of their best films rather than develop a "studio style" of its own. Harry Cohn's energy kept Columbia in competition, but his notorious tastelessness diminished much of what it produced. Even its major stars -- Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford, Kim Novak, William Holden -- appear in retrospect to be either sorely limited in personality or tragically misused when compared to a Bogart, a Cooper or a Grant.

As the '50s saw the studios dismantling their production facilities while simultaneously scrambling to preserve a shrinking audience more inclined to stay home and watch television, Columbia's response was typically unprovocative. As other studios developed widescreen processes and invested in costly epics such as Ben-Hur and Land of the Pharaohs, Columbia solidified its relationships with independent producers like Stanley Kramer and Sam Spiegel, resulting in a string of successes like From Here to Eternity and The Bridge on the River Kwai. As the others sought to differentiate themselves from the new small-screen medium, Columbia invested heavily in a television arm, Screen Gems.

In recent years, Columbia has continued to follow a path of tortoiselike persistence, despite several changes in ownership and management. Ironically, the modern Columbia is probably the most well-documented of any major film corporation, thanks to a series of scandals, internal squabbles and bestselling books. The David Begelman embezzlement scandal, the sales (first to Coca-Cola, then to Sony), the brief reigns of British producer David Puttnam and the Peter Guber-Jon Peters teams, the colossal hits (Ghostbusters, Men in Black, Air Force One) and equally splashy failures (Ishtar, Annie, Leonard Part 6) -- these have turned financial writers and business analysts into the Hedda Hoppers and Louella Parsonses of the post-studio era.

The studio has chosen a dozen films to represent its history in this series: David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (March 26-27), Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove and Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider (March 28-29), Frank Capra's It Happened One Night and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (March 30), Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai (March 31), Stanley Kramer's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? and Sydney Pollack's Tootsie (April 1), Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (director's cut) (April 2-4), Fred Zinnemann's From Here to Eternity and Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront (April 5-6) and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (April 7-8).

Do the 12 films in the Columbia Pictures retrospective tell the story of the studio's strange journey from Poverty Row to Wall Street? Do they show what made the Lady with the Torch different from her competitors at Universal or Fox? Not really. This is a history of Columbia Pictures that leaves out The Lady from Shanghai and Gilda, ignores Only Angels Have Wings, The Big Heat, In a Lonely Place, His Girl Friday, Born Yesterday and All the Kings Men, and is as silent on the James Stewart-Anthony Mann collaborations of the '50s as it is on the Barbra Streisand-Ray Stark partnerships of the '70s. In place of the best or the most significant films from the studio, this retrospective merely skims off the most popular, using last year's highly questionable American Film Institute "100 Best Films" list as its only source. Although it's good to have an opportunity to see Dr. Strangelove, Tootsie or Taxi Driver again, or to watch the epic dimensions of Lawrence of Arabia and Close Encounters of a Third Kind (now in something called "the director's cut," the third or fourth version to appear in the last two decades) unroll on a large screen, they're only part of the studio's history (and anomalies within its history at that). As much as we should be grateful for any interest in the cinematic past in this age of disposable DVDs, we should never allow film history to be rewritten by a video-sponsored popularity poll.

Opens March 26 at the Tivoli; see "Now Playing" on page 72 for complete schedule.

-- Robert Hunt

SIX WAYS TO SUNDAY
Co-written and directed by Adam Bernstein

Six Ways to Sunday is only director Adam Bernstein's second theatrical film, so it's a little early to attempt a coherent analysis of his career. On the surface, this young-continued on next pagecontinued from previous pagemobster story couldn't be more different from his earlier effort, the egregiously unfunny It's Pat, which foolishly bloated Julia Sweeney's one-gag androgyne shtick to feature length. Amazingly though, the more you think about it, the clearer it becomes that there are connections between the two projects -- prime among them some of the downright ickiest sexuality in recent cinema.

The opening scenes of Six Ways to Sunday aren't promising: We meet Harry Odum (Norman Reedus, who looks like a cross between Leonardo DiCaprio and Edward Furlong), a bland, wimpy young man who lives in a rundown house in Youngstown, Ohio, with his nauseatingly possessive mother (Deborah Harry). Son Harry is such a neb that his main reading is Dog Enthusiast magazine ... even though he doesn't have a dog. (Presumably Mom couldn't take the emotional competition.)

But the film is just setting us up: When Harry's friend Arnie (Adrien Brody), a gofer for the local mob, takes him along on a debt-collection errand, Harry goes berserk and nearly kills the deadbeat. To Arnie's surprise, this explosion of violence immediately gives Harry credibility with the underboss, Abie Pinkwise (Peter Appel); to Arnie's dismay, Abie displays a confidence in Harry that he's never had in Arnie.

Even though he's a gentile, Harry's psycho qualities quickly make him a chief enforcer for the local Jewish mob family, run by Mr. Varga (Jerry Adler). But the same qualities also make him a little too unpredictable for such a risky occupation, particularly when he lays eyes on Mr. Varga's beautiful, lame maid, Iris (Elina Lowensohn).

Bernstein delicately balances Six Ways to Sunday on the edge between tragedy and grotesque comedy. Harry is such a pathetic sad sack, so damaged by the grasp of his mother's oedipal talons, that he starts out sympathetic, despite his blandness. But, as his psychoses become clearer, he grows increasingly off-putting. Unlike, for instance, Norman Bates -- and the film makes at least one explicit acknowledgment of its debt to Psycho -- Harry becomes more psychically impenetrable as the film progresses. We may get to understand him better, but our understanding makes us more distant: He becomes an object of our twisted interest rather than our doorway into the film's world.

Bernstein and co-writer Marc Gerald based the film on Charles Perry's 1962 novel Portrait of a Young Man Drowning. They take many of the classic elements of the gangster films of the '30s and '40s and push them to a level that would have been unthinkable back then. Harry's relationship with his mother is an extension of the devotion that dogged Jimmy Cagney characters from Public Enemy to White Heat. Harry is like White Heat's Cody Jarrett, taken to the logical extreme. (And you thought that Jarrett already was the extreme.)

In some ways, this explicitness is a fault: It is precisely the inability of those old films to be upfront about their seamier themes that gives them much of their power; the surface ambiguity of their psychological pathology makes the characters even creepier.

Still, I frankly don't think you'd want Six Ways to Sunday to be any creepier than it already is. It is shocking enough just to see Debbie Harry playing a grown man's mother -- time sure does fly, doesn't it? -- but her performance makes it even more shocking. She plays Mom as such a guilt-monster that, by comparison, Nancy Marchand on The Sopranos is a pussycat. Harry resembles the wacky moms of Ruth Gordon (in Where's Poppa?) and Gloria Grahame (in Head Over Heels) but without their charm.

Perry's novel was set in Brooklyn in the '30s; the transplanting into contemporary terms is not always successful. As soon as you meet the Varga mob, you think: Old-style Jewish crime families still operate? Communicating in Yiddish, no less, and listening to Yiddish pop songs? And Youngstown, Ohio, is big enough to support this kind of operation?

Oy!
But realism is clearly not Bernstein's goal here. Both the temporal dislocation and the low budget -- the milieu always feels unnatural, as though the crew was shooting quick-and-dirty on real locations and there wasn't enough money for extras -- put us in some grungy internal landscape of the mind ... inside a dirty dreamworld where Freud and W.R. Burnett are queasy bedfellows.

Opens March 26 at the Chase Park Plaza.
-- Andy Klein

HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: PROGRAM 1

The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, hosted for the seventh year by Webster University, begins its five (nonconsecutive) Tuesday screenings with three masterful, provocative pieces. They present lively sessions with four distinctly different, mutually supportive women united for decades to protest Egyptian politics; a Moroccan woman's exploration of her mother's and grandmother's calamitous arranged marriages and the ironically joyful preparation for another young woman's traditional wedding; and a complimentary profile of Dr. R.D. Spencer, who performed illegal abortions for more than 40 years in a coal-mining town in eastern Pennsylvania.

Wide-ranging stylistically and thematically, these works share an opposition to social inequality, specifically limitations on women's personal independence and political power. These documentaries approach their subjects with a calm commitment bolstered by solid research, and all three contain surprising moments -- of personal revelation, of heartbreaking choices, of culturally sanctioned oppression.

The longest and richest work, Tahani Rached's Four Women in Egypt, uses archival film footage and still photographs to provide an authoritative history of Egypt since World War II, from King Farouk through Presidents Gamel Abdul Nassar and Anwar Sadat. In and out of prison and Egypt, the four women of the title -- Safynaz Kazem, Wedad Mitry, Shahenda Maklad and Amina Rachid -- led resistance movements through writings, organizations and demonstrations. Their moving reminiscences and spirited debates clarify their shared goals but diverse strategies. Differences extend to their religious preferences -- Christian, Muslim (one supporting a secular state and one opposed) and nonreligious -- as they argue about wearing the hajib, socialism, nonviolent activism and dependence on petrodollars. They agree that the New World Order disenfranchises the poor as it exalts ruthless individualism and enables dangerous religious fervor. Intelligent, articulate and well-educated, these fascinating women provide insightful stories as they celebrate justice and their prevailing sense of humor.

More artistically daring and equally moving, In My Father's House interweaves several threads. Director Fatima Jebli Ouazzani imagines herself a child searching for her estranged father (they haven't spoken for 16 years) as the catalyst to explore Moroccan wedding rituals -- girls married at 14, insistence on their virginity and total subservience. Fatima's mother committed suicide rather than endure her forced marriage; her grandmother loathes the husband she serves. Parallel to these sad stories, a bride-to-be eagerly plans her traditional wedding.

Some heroes are quiet men, like Dr. R.D. Spencer. Danielle Renfrew and Beth Seltzer's "Dear Dr. Spencer: Abortion in a Small Town" blends together interviews with women who got abortions; lawyers; widows; jurors; and residents of the complicit, compassionate community that supported Spencer for more than four decades. Responding to pleas that swelled to more than 30,000 letters, Dr. Spencer worked until his death in 1969.

Engaging, astonishing, poignant, these three videos document the real champions of freedom -- those who make the struggle for liberation more than a remote ideology. In one eloquent comment, Safy Kazem confesses her excess of health -- a strong memory, perfect vision and a complete grasp of the New World Order that wants us blind, deaf and dumb. Would that we could all boast such well-being.

Four Women in Egypt (in Arabic and French with English subtitles) shows at 7 p.m. and In My Father's House (in Arabic with English subtitles) and "Dear Dr. Spencer" at 8:45 p.m. March 30 at Webster University.

-- Diane Carson

TRUE CRIME
Directed by Clint Eastwood

"At 50," George Orwell once wrote, "Everyone has the face he deserves." (It was the last thing he scribbled in his notebook before dying.) If that's true, then Clint Eastwood, the producer, director and star of the death-row thriller True Crime, must have committed a capital offense or two of his own. To call it "lived-in" doesn't do it justice: It's been lived in, booted around, dragged, punched, folded, spindled and mutilated. By this point, it is so creased from squinting that it has frozen into a sort of permanent pissed-off sneer. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but with Eastwood it limits the range of expression of an actor who, to begin with, has an emotional range that runs the gamut from A to a little past A.

As a result, Eastwood the actor leaves Eastwood the producer/director with very little to work with. The solution is the one to which most performers who've made their reputations as tough guys come: He plays his tough-guy machismo for laughs. And for the first part of True Crime this approach is moderately pleasing -- or, rather, the first part of one-half of the film.

I say one-half because the movie operates on two parallel tracks. One track chronicles the ramshackle existence of Steve Everett (Eastwood), a reporter for the Oakland Tribune. From what we're able to piece together from the film's early scenes, Everett was once a newspaperman of considerable talent, but that was before the booze and the chronic womanizing took its toll. These days, Everett is making an attempt to pull himself together, though from all appearances he's not in any hurry about it. He may have switched from Bloody Marys to Virgin Marys, but he still smokes like a chimney -- even at the office, where it's strictly forbidden -- and can't seem to cut down on the flirting. At present, he is sleeping with the wife of his paper's city editor (an entertainingly disgusted Denis Leary), who, when he's trying to reach the reprobate writer, just calls home and leaves the message with his own wife.

The reason the editor is trying to track Everett down is because he has a story for him. At midnight on that very night, an inmate on San Quentin's death row is going to be executed, and the editor wants Everett to take over for a fellow reporter who was killed the night before in an automobile accident, go out to the prison, and do an interview with the inmate for a simple human-interest sidebar. No Dick Tracy stuff, he says. Just a simple human-interest story.

The time frame of the film is 24 hours, and while we're following Everett as he moves through his day, we're also counting down the minutes in the last day in the life of Frank Beachum (an impressive Isaiah Washington). The crime for which Beachum is being executed took place six years earlier. Since his sentencing, Beachum has come to terms with his conviction (though he's never confessed his guilt), deepened his faith in God, and grown even closer to his wife (Lisa Gay Hamilton) and their young daughter (Penny Rae Bridges).

Having exhausted all their legal appeals, Beachum and his wife no longer entertain the possibility of any last-minute miracles. Everett, though, thinks he smells something funny. He's got a nose, he tells his editor-in-chief (a robust James Woods) -- that's about all he's got. And for the last several years, while he was drinking, his nose was no longer dependable. (It went very wrong, for example, on a controversial rape case. Now that he's sober again, he thinks his instincts are back on track, and he begins to conduct a quickie investigation, hoping to prove Beachum's innocence, certainly, but, of even greater importance, vindicate himself and his "hunches.")

The problem here has less to do with content and more with style. From the outset, Eastwood's basic approach toward his own character is light-fingered and comical. He encourages us to view Everett as an old dinosaur from an earlier age of man, a newspaper man from the old school. In his easygoing way as a director, he draws laughs out of Everett's anachronism -- the fact that he won't acknowledge the existence of, say, secondhand smoke; or that it's not cool to ask a female colleague to fetch him a cup of coffee. He wants, for example, to be a good daddy, but he blows an outing with his baby daughter by trying to combine a visit to the zoo with a little reporting. The result is "speed zoo," which leaves his daughter crying and covered with Band-Aids and Everett's wife (Diane Venora) convinced that their relationship is over.

Beachum also has a daughter, and, clearly, Eastwood wants to draw parallels between the accused murderer -- who seems to have excellent parenting skills and a good marriage -- and Everett, but they never emerge. That Eastwood cast his wife, Dina; his daughter Francesca; and her mother, Frances Fisher, in the film has led some reviewers to speculate about the personal nature of the film. The feel of the picture is far too slack and lackadaisical to be personal. The notion that a reporter could be assigned to a story for a 12-hour period and end up breaking the case and saving the accused man's life is preposterous.

What's more, Eastwood has always played the dinosaur, and from the general lack of sharpness in nearly every aspect of the film, it seems as if he is almost as bored with this idea as we are. Nearly every aspect of the picture feels recycled. The scenes of agitated bantering between Everett and his editor are macho pissing contests of the sort that we used to see when Eastwood was called on the carpet as a detective by a higher-ranking officer sick and tired of watching him turn the streets of the city into a shooting gallery. Throughout all this, the only emotion Everett shows is irritation. During the jailhouse interview he has with Beachum, he seems completely indifferent to the answers Beachum gives. When Beachum and his wife ask whether he believes their story, Everett turns around and growls back his answer. It's as if Everett had an afternoon tee-time and the interview was causing him to be late.

The whole project feels lazy and halfhearted, not least of all the finale, in which Everett tries to beat the clock by driving the woman who has the one piece of evidence that might save Beachum to the governor's house so that he can make that all important, last-minute call to the prison before the clock ticks its last tock. By that point, though, whatever it was they were pumping into Beachum's arm looked mighty good to me.

Now playing.
-- Hal Hinson

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