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movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Palmetto

Starring: Woody Harrelson, Elisabeth Shue
Director: Volker Schlondroff
Rated: R
RunTime: 113 Minutes
Release Date: February 1998
Genres: Noir, Suspense

*Also starring: Gina Gershon, Tom Wright, Michael Rapaport, Chloe Sevigny, Laird Stuart, Angela Featherstone

Review by Jerry Saravia
No Rating Supplied

Film noir has lately seeped in many corners of the film industry. We've seen examples of deadpan noir (an Ebert term applicable to "Destiny Turns on the Radio"), farce noir ("Clay Pigeons," "Fargo"), revisionist noir ("Pulp Fiction," and a slew of rip-offs), old-fashioned, hard-boiled detective noir ("L.A. Confidential"), time-bending, surreal, neo-noir ("Lost Highway," an ode to "Detour") and, finally, daylight, Florida noir. As far as current noir, I am most impressed by "Lost Highway" because it is so unconventional and a sign of the new cinema to come where there are no boundaries with structure or logic. I am less excited with Florida noir, a hark back to Elmore Leonard's shenanigans in the ordinary "Stick." Not that Florida is a flat setting (it was ideal for 1991's "Cape Fear"), but it doesn't build for the kind of atmosphere that noir needs - that air of desperation. That desperation is well-handled in "Palmetto," but it fails miserably in "Wild Things" - two of the newest additions to noir.

"Palmetto" stars Woody Harrelson as a rambunctious former reporter just out of prison for a crime he didn't commit - he was apparently framed in a police cover-up. Now he starts life over with his sexy girlfriend (Gina Gershon), an artist, and is offered a job with the police department! He resists the offer, and finds himself neck deep in trouble with a flirtatious blonde siren (Elisabeth Shue). After stealing money from her purse, she asks him to participate in a scheme involving the kidnapping of her sister. Before you can say murder, corruption, conspiracy, double indemnity, Woody gets in a jam he can't get out of. The desperation begins. In an ironic twist, he's hired by the police department to cover his own story, which involves him as a possible murder suspect.

"Palmetto" is breezy fun for a while, but it takes much too long for it to go anywhere. An inordinate amount of time is spent on Woody's couplings with Ms. Shue before the plot kicks in gear. The problem here is that Harrelson and Shue have no believable sultry sparks between them - Shue's best leading man has been Nicolas Cage by far, and he played a drunk! The film has the perfect sweltering atmosphere to convey hidden passions and desires, but its tone is too uneven. It goes from completely deadpan, to wildly over-the-top, rainy climaxes, to deadly serious innuendoes of the "Gingerbread Man" variety - witness the gory shenanigans of the Michael Rappaport character that belongs in a different movie.

At least "Palmetto" floats with Woody's charisma and comic timing (not to mention the more lustrous Chloe Sevigny), but "Wild Things" has no one dependable to keep things interesting. The story has Matt Dillon (wildly miscast) as Lombardo, a respected high-school teacher who is convicted of raping two local teenage beauties of the "Scream" variety, the rich blonde Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards), and the girl from the alligator nests' living in a trailer, Suzie (Neve Campbell). And that's about as far as I can go in describing the plot except to say that Kevin Bacon shows up as a clean-cut cop, and Bill Murray hilariously plays a shyster.

Although "Wild Things" is sleazy, exploitative to an extent, and often cheesy, the film's twists and turns are much too apparent. Perhaps, I've seen too many film noir thrillers but I could anticipate its every move, excluding Kevin Bacon's stunning reversal of roles that I'll keep mum about. The other flaw is that the complex weaving of twists reveals little about the characters or their humanity. In the best tradition of film noir with classics that range from "Double Indemnity" to "Chinatown," there was always an identification with the protagonists and an understanding of their motives for their actions, no matter how depraved. Here, there is no one to identify with on any level, possibly because no effort was made to make the characters' personalities real or consistent - they appear to be cartoon characters out of a Vogue fashion spread. The only character worth caring about is Neve Campbell's Suzie, but then we learn she's not quite what she seems either.

"Palmetto" is the better film to see, but I miss the old days of film noir when the dialogue sparkled and cut the air like stabbing someone's back. The atmosphere was always there, but it served as an existential backdrop for the sins of mortal men and women. Desperation hung like an endlessly dripping wet blanket - it was omnipresent. "L.A. Confidential" and "Lost Highway" are the best recent examples of that type of noir. The rest is disorganized, silly and counterproductive.

Copyright 1998 Jerry Saravia

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