Wednesday, August 02, 2006

You Think I Have A God Complex?

You’ve got to be on your toes to keep up with MALICE, a slick early-‘90s thriller that was sumptuously shot by Gordon Willis (THE GODFATHER) and intelligently directed by Harold Becker (SEA OF LOVE). I saw it in its initial release, where it benefited from a marvelously evasive trailer that indicated the movie was about one thing, when it’s really about something else. The trailer (which is not, sadly, on MGM’s DVD) made MALICE appear as though it were about a serial rapist stalking college coeds and the college professor (Bill Pullman) accused of the crimes. And, in fact, that is part of the movie, but as a subplot. Considering the way that storyline plays out, I believe it exists solely to fool people in the trailer.

I wish I could say more about MALICE, but it really is a movie that you have to experience cold. Bill Pullman is Andy Safian, the assistant dean of a small Eastern university, and Nicole Kidman is his sweet wife Tracy. They live together in a three-story Victorian house that they plan to fix up. A chance encounter reunites Andy with Jed Hill (Alec Baldwin), the BMOC of the high school they both attended. Jed is a brilliant surgeon just hired at the local hospital. He’s charming, handsome, smart and funny. Andy seems to worship the guy, just as he perhaps did in high school, where they ran in separate circles, and invites Jed to move in to the third floor of his and Tracy’s house.

Okay, that’s it, I won’t say anything more about the plot. It’s masterfully crafted by Aaron Sorkin and Scott Frank, to this day two of Hollywood’s most respected screenwriters. You know the brilliant Sorkin from A FEW GOOD MEN, SPORTS NIGHT and THE WEST WING (when it was the best drama on network television), and Frank’s resume includes GET SHORTY and the terrific OUT OF SIGHT. Although you may likely pick a nit or two long after you’ve ejected the DVD from your player, while MALICE plays, it’s efficiently manipulative, pulling your attention one direction and then trapping it with a bait-and-switch. Like most Hollywood thrillers, it runs out of gas in the third act, but I still admire the filmmakers’ effrontery.

Becker also calls upon some interesting supporting actors to act as red herrings: Peter Gallagher (currently on THE O.C.), Josef Sommer (the President in X-MEN 3), delectable Debrah Farentino, Tobin Bell (the creepy-looking killer from SAW). Anne Bancroft and George C. Scott perform cameos, and there’s even a bit by 19-year-old Gwyneth Paltrow, who was known mainly as Blythe Danner’s daughter at that stage of her career.

MALICE is one of Alec Baldwin’s best performances. He is at his best, period, when playing either oily bad guys or comedic roles. I think he lost his way in the 1990s after the success of THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, which caused him to play square-jawed hero-types in disappointments like THE SHADOW, THE GETAWAY and HEAVEN’S PRISONERS. Among a brilliant cast of character actors, he steals GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS from Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Ed Harris and others with a monologue (written by David Mamet) that plays like an actor’s dream. MALICE provides him with a similar show-stopper, a legal deposition where Hill is forced to defend himself against a malpractice charge:

“I have an M.D. from Harvard. I am board-certified in cardiothoracic medicine and trauma surgery. I have been awarded citations from seven different medical boards in New England, and I am never, ever sick at sea. So I ask you, when someone goes into that chapel and they fall on their knees and they pray to God that their wife doesn't miscarry or that their daughter doesn't bleed to death or that their mother doesn't suffer acute neural trauma from post-operative shock, who do you think they're praying to? Now, go ahead and read your Bible, Dennis, and you go to your church, and, with any luck, you might win the annual raffle, but, if you're looking for God, he was in Operating Room number two on November 17, and he doesn't like to be second-guessed. You ask me if I have a God complex. Let me tell you something. I am God.”

If you've seen MALICE and would like to discuss it, please feel free to do so in the Comments section, which I'll officially designate as a MALICE Spoiler Zone.


Anonymous said...

I've never seen MALICE but will rent it on your recommendation. I remember hearing the "I am God" line over and over on a trailer tape when I worked at the video store.

Anonymous said...

I think that entire monologue was in the trailer. Weird how those things come back to you years later.