Male Malfeasance

Why does Michael Douglas still insist on playing good guys? As his appropriately titled new film, Don't Say a Word, only confirms, it isn't a persuasive fit. Douglas plays Dr. Nathan Conrad, a psychiatrist for the neurotically inclined offspring of Manhattan's elite who enjoys the perks of upscale living—a beautiful wife (Famke Janssen), a darling child (Skye McCole Bartusiak) and one of those sprawling apartments so beloved of Hollywood production designers. As in Fatal Attraction, the story hinges on a mortal threat to Nathan's domestic bliss, though here the menace is disappointingly external. Some bank robbers, led by Sean Bean, want a number that's locked away in the disturbed mind of a teenager (Brittany Murphy). Resorting to the sort of extreme gadgetry and logistics more appropriate to international terrorists, the thieves kidnap Nathan's daughter to force him to get at the damaged teen's secret. Given the inherent lack of narrative tension in the therapeutic relationship, even when the patient is a psycho babe whose peekaboo pathology flips between ball-kicking and -licking, director Gary Fleder can only fling the camera about and indulge in some familiar screen sadism (and no wonder—his last feature was Kiss the Girls) as he tries to squeeze a few thrills from material as desiccated as his leading man.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Douglas played a series of bedeviled characters whose turpitude was deeply connected to—even predicated on—what it means to be a man. Unlike the cartoon masculinities embodied by Stallone and Schwarzenegger, the Douglas man was recognizably human, by turns insolent and impotent, which is why his characters came across as not just morally ambiguous or weak, but decadent—the hero of a thousand lying faces. Each new film—Fatal Attraction, Wall Street, Basic Instinct, Falling Down—added another sordid, eminently watchable chapter to this evolving story, one that Douglas, a physically stiff screen presence (like his father), told with the same fixed stare, parsimonious mouth and shiver of sexual hysteria. As his father had before him, the younger Douglas seemed to expend a lot of energy just keeping the lid on. It wasn't until last year's Wonder Boys that the movie star finally ceded ground to the movie actor. Putting vanity and expensive grooming aside, Douglas (with director Curtis Hanson) transformed his icon of male sexual potency and paranoia into a real guy—a little too soft, a little too sloppy, but essentially decent. It was an image, apparently, that was also a little too genuine for most audiences: the film was a bust at the box office. All things considered, it's not surprising that Douglas would return to familiar ground—but did the ground have to be this well-trod, this barren?

It's noteworthy that the cryptic and dissatisfying coming-of-age film Hearts in Atlantis is being sold as “from the writer of The Green Mile.” After all, it isn't as if the writer, Stephen King, had somehow become too famous (or holy) to actually be named. Minutes into this impeccably mounted production, with its gleaming surfaces and equally varnished sense of human psychology, however, it becomes clear that the people behind the film have more upscale ambitions than the big numbers and blunt pop pleasures associated with the best-selling author. As directed by Scott Hicks (Shine, Snow Falling on Cedars), this story about a fatherless boy (Anton Yelchin) befriended by a stranger (Anthony Hopkins) aspires neither to art nor to pulp, but to that amorphous condition of good taste that necessitates every dark insinuation be brightened, every flight of dangerous fancy be grounded. Set in 1960 and narrated by David Morse, the film is a peculiar exercise in misplaced nostalgia that struggles to overlay one family's pathology (absent father, selfish mother) onto a bigger narrative about the individual's struggle against a faceless and authoritarian government. The thing is for all the highfalutin dialogue and mysterioso goings-on, the only true mystery Hicks and Goldman conjure up is whether the mellifluously voiced outsider is dangling his new friend a little too closely on his knee. It's an insinuation that the fail-safe Hopkins only underscores with every silken syllable and each glinting look.

Don't Say a Wordwas directed by Gary Fleder; written by Anthony Peckham and Patrick Smith Kelly, based on the book by Andrew Klavan; produced by Arnon Milchan, Arnold Kopelson and Anne Kopelson; and stars Michael Douglas and Brittany Murphy. Now playing countywide; Hearts in Atlantiswas directed by Scott Hicks; written by William Goldman, based on the book by Stephen King; produced by Kerry Heysen; and stars Anthony Hopkins and Anton Yelchin. Now playing countywide.

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