In John Grisham's "The Firm," lawyer Mitch McDeere may have
thought he had joined the law firm from hell, but he hadn't. In
contrast, Kevin Lomax in DEVIL'S ADVOCATE does and finds the perks in
working for God's opposition to be seductively satisfying even if there
are significant drawbacks. To be sure, he does not know that his boss
John Milton is the Devil incarnate, and the beauty of the film is that
it keeps this obvious secret from Kevin until the end.
Most films dealing with the supernatural border on being
unwatchably ridiculous. And fictional films about God and temptation
are even worse. Only THE RAPTURE and COMMANDMENTS come to mind as
films worth seeing that cover the latter. DEVIL'S ADVOCATE, thanks to
Tony Gilroy and Jonathan Lemkin's smart and witty script, based on
Andrew Neiderman's novel, is worth adding to this short list. The
picture has you alternating between thinking and laughing.
The story starts in a small courtroom in rural Florida. Kevin has
a perfect record as a lawyer due to his omniscience in jury selection.
A nerdy teenage girl, played with childlike innocence by Heather
Matarazzo from WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE, is on the witness stand. With
a quivering lip, she testifies that her teacher sexually abused her.
As Kevin is ready to rip her to her shreds in cross-examination, he
sees his client's eyes lusting after her and fondling the desk exactly
as the girl claims he fondled her. Realizing his client is guilty as
sin, Kevin goes into a panic attack. In a cold sweat, Kevin resolves
his conscience conflict in favor of winning.
As Kevin, Keanu Reeves turns in his best performance since SPEED.
With his suave demeanor and his yuppie drive for money, power and
success, Kevin is ripe pickings for John Milton. As a consummate
business manipulator, Al Pacino plays John, the head of a big Manhattan
law firm that makes Kevin an incredibly lucrative offer to come to work
for them. Defending the slimeballs of the world and shredding
documents before investigators find them, John's law firm is a bastion
of evil. Pacino is in his prime during the show. Punching out lines
both powerful and humorous. ("What about love?" Kevin asks him at one
point. "Biochemically overrated," John explains. "It's no different
than a big box of chocolates.")
John's highly religious mother, played by a haggard looking Judith
Ivey, warns him that New York is a modern day Babylon. With Andrzej
Bartkowiak's stunning time lapsed cinematography of New York's
skyscrapers, the metaphor seems apt. Bruno Rubeo's sets combining
Rococo with the ultra-modern further enhance the image. Especially
memorable is the large stone diorama that graces the wall of the large
room where John works, lives and sleeps.
From the beginning John taunts Kevin even while serving as his
mentor. John wants to know why he no longer goes to church with his
mother. "It didn't work out -- The book? The church?" John inquires.
"I'm on parole," Kevin replies, smiling obsequiously. "Early release
for time served."
Charlize Theron from TRIAL AND ERROR, plays Kevin's incredibly
beautiful wife Mary Ann. When they go to live in a huge company
apartment overlooking Central Park, she gives up her job repossessing
cars. "Are you really this good?" she asks him when she sees their
new palatial digs.
Theron's superlative acting in this supporting role fills out the
storyline. As Mary Ann becomes aware of what is happening, she begins
a slow descent into madness. ("I know we've got all this money, and
it's supposed to be okay, but it's not," she says while suffering from
rapidly increasing depression.) Several of her scenes are so strong
that they are not likely to be forgotten. One happens on a shopping
spree with other wives, whom she comes to detest. The other involves
conjugal relations. The movie uses transformation scenes sparingly but
effectively. And one of the times her busy husband pencils her in for
sex, a transformation occurs with spectacularly jarring visual results.
Pacino's street-smart and superrich Devil has such credibility
because of his likability. With his charisma, his money, his power and
the beautiful and sexy people surrounding him, he has all the
temptations in the world to offer a young protege. If you're not
careful, you'll find yourself wanting to hang with John. But if you go
astray, it's not his fault. "I only set the stage," he argues. "You
pull your own strings." John is a big fan of free will.
In a long and somewhat surprising ending sequence that blends the
sublime with the outlandish, John reveals himself to Kevin and explains
why it was so easy to entrap him. "Vanity, definitely my favorite
sin," John tells Kevin as one reason why Kevin was so vulnerable. And
boy, are there are others.
If the Devil does walk the earth, he's probably a lot like John
DEVIL'S ADVOCATE runs 2:18, and although it does not need to be
that long, the film amazingly does not suffer because of it. The movie
is rated R for sex, full frontal nudity, violence, profanity, and
mature themes -- remember, this IS a movie about the Devil. The film
would be fine for mature teenagers. I recommend the film highly and
give it *** 1/2.
Copyright © 1997 Steve Rhodes