Thursday, March 20, 2014

Primal Fear


There's little new to report on Fillies , my new musical version of Equus where I play psychiatrist extraordinaire, Martina Dysart. I'm starting to do a little character research by visiting the locked ward at the Boskey Dell home for the terminally confused and watching modern psychiatry in action. It seems to have something to do with writing prescriptions and filling out endless federally mandated forms on patient progress. Fortunately, Fillies is something of a period piece, being set in the early 70s, so a scripted paperwork ballet was tossed during an early meeting of the creative team. I met the producer today; a dear little German man of somewhat advanced age. A creature of cellulite and silicone and peroxide that was introduced as Annie accompanied him - I assume she's his nurse or masseuse or some such.

Norman is in something of a temper over my bustling schedule. He always becomes agitated when he feels that my career is advancing at a faster pace than his. I called his agents and told them to find him something to do - I simply cannot have him sitting at home and preparing highballs from common household solvents. They have found a pilot for him. It’s to costar Wilford Brimley, Dick Van Dyke and Hal Linden. As I understand it, it’s a sitcom about four irascible seniors who run some sort of a farm in Mendocino. It's called Waiting to Inhale . This should keep Norman occupied for a tad although he's worried that he might not receive due recognition in an ensemble show.

As I have been preoccupied with psychiatric institutions of late, I pulled out the legal thriller of a few years ago Primal Fear and thrust it into the home theater system for my evening's entertainment. Primal Fear is one of those films where personal enmity between opposing counsels gets played out in the courtroom under the guidance of a wise African American female judge (a new cinema cliche). Meanwhile, the audience tries to guess if the accused did it or not. There's been a spate of these in the last fifteen years or so including Presumed Innocent Jagged Edge  and that great lawyeress Cher in Suspect Primal Fear is a cut or so above the herd, predominantly because of a super supporting cast that includes such wonderful actors as John Mahoney, Terry O'Quinn (responsible for one of the best performances by an actor ever in the trash classic The Stepfather ), Andre Braugher and Frances McDormand. The stand out, of course, is Edward Norton in his screen debut as Aaron Stampler, an aw shucks street kid from Appalachia, accused of killing Chicago's beloved Archbishop. The Archbishop, you see, has a dreadful secret, one that will be old hat to any viewers of the recent nightly news.

In the roles of the feuding lawyers, once lovers and now adversaries, are Richard Gere for the defense and Laura Linney for the prosecution. Richard Gere turns in his usual carefully modulated, but oblique performance. The same performance he's been giving for at least the last twenty years. He becomes a sort of black hole, sucking life out of the plot and the other actors as the story progresses. One wonders what might have happened if someone with some charisma had played the role. I do not understand the appeal of Richard Gere. He has obvious good looks, is aging well, but has been a block of wood on screen for more than a decade. Laura Linney tries hard in her adversarial role but, as she's playing opposite a Disney animatronic, comes off weaker than she should. No sparks, either sexual or emotional, ignite between the two.

To work well, a legal thriller must be tightly plotted so that what happens in the courtroom makes sense to the audience, allowing them to follow the revelations and fully enjoy the denouement. Unfortunately, this film has a number of plot holes. These occur mainly as Richard Gere and his associates attempt to track down Edward Norton's past and life; I have the feeling that some filmed sequences were cut, possibly because they gave away too much of the ending too early. Perhaps some more judicious editing could have glossed over these 'But what about....?' moments. I will not reveal the ending as it's a neat trick and helps explain how Norton pulled an Oscar nomination out of an ordinary genre film but it does come a little out of left field and hasn't been as well set up as it might.

The real fun of the movie, besides Norton's great moments, is watching the old pros in the supporting cast make the most of thin material. Alfre Woodard takes her clichéd judge role and does a neat trick or two with a decanter and glasses. Andre Braugher is wonderful in the witness box trying to evade questions on how a videotape was delivered to the prosecution. Even Steven Bauer (The Mr. Melanie Griffiths between her two Johnsons) has a great moment or two in an underdeveloped subplot about real estate chicanery.

Naughty home movies. Flying severed fingers. Expensive suits. Latino music. Gratuitous boy choir. Abusive priest clichés. Black lady judge clichés. Criminal lawyer clichés.

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