A One-Way Ticket to Pakulaville

THE PELICAN BRIEF (1993), Alan J. Pakula’s second-last film isn’t interesting in itself. It shows its director revisiting the past glories of ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, with Washington locations, crusading reporters, underground car parks, conspiracies. It’s very glossy and well shot and cut, but John Grisham’s book, at least as adapted by screenwriter Pakula, is diffuse and ineffectual. Splitting the action between Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington’s characters for the first half undercuts any forward thrust, and we keep cutting away to other characters on top of that. The movie also begins way too soon, with the assassination of two supreme court judges… it then has to tread water for half an hour before the assassination of another character who’s actually a character, as well as being someone connected to one of our protagonists.

The comparisons to ATPM just show up how unexciting the thriller became in the nineties (I don’t think it’s recovered, either). Here’s a movie where we know exactly who will be alive at the end, who will be dead, and who will be disgraced (Robert Culp, I’m looking at you). You don’t know that for a second in ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, even though it’s a true story and you literally know how it turns out. It feels full of uncertainty and possibility.It’s nice that Pakula was still working at this stage, but unfortunately the cinema of the era didn’t tend to allow the interesting choices that enlivened his ’70s work (THE PARALLAX VIEW would surely have been impossible), so he was walled in by artificial genre and commercial constraints. I’m looking at my cat right now, who is lying very happily in a shoe box that’s much too small for him. Cats like confined spaces. Artists, not so much.

The plot gets underway with Supreme Court justices being murdered. President Culp doesn’t really want to the truth to come out (Culp is culpable) and tells his intelligence men to lay off — the scene with the most contemporary relevance. Law student Julia Roberts cracks the case with a bit of research (in fact, all she finds is a possible motive). She’s sleeping with her professor (Sam Shepherd) — and this is quite normal and OK in the world of this film — so she tells him, he tells a friend in DC, and is promptly assassinated. Julia goes on the run and has to enlist crusading reporter Denzel Washington to help.

The story is a bit implausible, but also a bit boring, which is a terrible combination. It’s all very well made, with the occasional nice touch, but it can’t transcend its Grishamite limitations. But here’s a nice dissolve from assassin Stanley Tucci leaving the site of one SCOTUS killing, disguised as a jogger, and entering a porno theatre disguised as a big old gay homosexual to kill another SCOTUS ~ Later, Robert Culp gets maybe the best closeup of the year 1993 ~Features Erin Brockovich, Malcolm X, Chuck Yeager, Alex Cutter, Frank Boggs, Caesar Flickerman, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, Dr. Emilio Lizardo and Death.

I’ve never seen Pakula’s CONSENTING ADULTS but for some reason I saw PRESUMED INNOCENT at the cinema when it was new. It seemed sexist, and Pakula seemed to be stuck making John Grisham and Scott Turow adaptations, which seemed slightly worse than directing episodic TV. I feel he could have had more fun on The X-Files, which he practically invented with ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN.THE DEVIL’S OWN got terrible reviews in the UK (Hollywood films always get Irish political things horribly wrong; Pakula’s late works, being generally inoffensive, got fairly forgiving notice usually, but not this one). Like TPB it has an overblown, schmaltzy James Horner score, where early Pakula benefited massively from the subtlety of David Shire and the aptly-named Michael Small.

When this came out, we’d just had the embarrassing BLOWN AWAY (how’s that for a tasteful title for a movie about a mad Irish bomber?) and the critics reviewing TDO reminded us that the Guinness in BA looked like weak tea, which was a bit unfair because the stout in TDO looks approximately like stout. There were also reports, I seem to recall, of bad behaviour from the film’s stars, particularly in the form of jealousy from Harrison Ford over his young co-star, Brad Pitt. This certainly seems to have left its mark on the film.Pitt plays an IRA man with an enthusiastic go at a Belfast accent. Having seen his father murdered as a boy, and being a fugitive in his homeland after a gigantic, ludicrous gunfight, he’s sent to the US to purchase guns for the cause from gangster Treat Williams. His political sponsor has him billeted as a houseguest of Irish-American cop Ford, on the grounds that this will make great cover. It also irretrievably makes Ford look a sucker, which may have started the trouble with him.

For the next HOUR of screentime, Pitt’s plotline fails to proceed while Ford gets a series of action set pieces showing his unbelievably exciting life as a cop. These don’t progress the narrative, of course, because they have nothing to do with the narrative. Something showing Pitt in danger of being rumbled by his host would have been more to the point. And something showing a developing bond between the characters was surely needed. We do see them play pool and exchange light-hearted racist taunts with some Italianamericans, but that’s all.It’s only when Pitt’s cover is blown and his criminal activities endanger Ford’s family that the film finds its feet again, at which point it promptly shoots both of them, as well as everything else in sight. “I told you before,” says Pitt, soulfully, “this isn’t an American story, it’s an Irish one.”

It bloody is an American story, though. Look who’s alive at the end.

Stars Han Solo, Tyler Durden, Mary Boleyn, Mickey Nice, Critical Bill and Arthur Dent.

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12 Responses to “A One-Way Ticket to Pakulaville”

  1. One latter work which avoids Grisham-itis to a point: The Gingerbread Man, a sneaky, creepy Altman thriller for the first two thirds (love the asylum escape), which unfortunately then turns all its characters into their most obvious types, and resolves all the legal proceedings with one man punching another man.

    I dunno if Pakula was ever suited for straight thrillers: Klute is great, but almost aggressively dysfunctional as a suspense film

  2. The way Pakula shoots the action sequence at the start of Parallax View is so beautifully counter-intuitive, very effective but totally the opposite to conventional acion filmmaking.

    Grisham, for a thriller writer, really sucks at endings. I can’t think of a film adaptation that gets to a satisfying conclusion, and couple I read didn’t manage it on the page either.

    I know there were disputes over Altman’s cut, but he apparently won. He was the only name on Grisham’s shortlist (which I think included Kubrick!) who wanted to do it, then Grisham didn’t like Altman putting his stamp on it.

    I saw a few scenes and remember enjoying Robert Downey Jr but not being able to bear the sound of Branagh doing Amurrican.

  3. I simply must check out The Parallax View then! He also seem slike the first guy to have gone for the modernist – fetishist chic aesthetic culminated with Michael Mann, so I’ll always love him for that too

  4. Speaking of ’90s thrillers with Harrison Ford where his character just seems like a moron who is bad at his job, CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER is 90% him having the wool pulled over his eyes and serving as a fall guy. Then he’s kidnapped twice, back to back. It doesn’t help that he seems less interesting than pretty much every other character in the film, but the passivity and ineffectualness is the real danger.

  5. It’s a long, long descent from The Parallax View, one of my favorite 70s Hollywood films, to the The Devil’s Own, which is clueless junk.

    Ford made so many of those glumly trashy thrillers in the 90s. He gave some good performances in the 80s, but almost everything he’s made since gives the impression he doesn’t give a shit about acting, and that all he cares about career-wise is being paid lots of money and having his name above the title.

    I am enjoying this series about late films. I don’t have time to contribute anything new myself, but the first film review I posted on my blog, of Gosho’s An Innocent Witch, is of a late work.

  6. Mimic, I’m going to co-opt you into my little blogathon by linking to your piece officially tomorrow, as I find it excellent!

    And if Mr. K has anything suitable…

    Via Facebook, David Strauss suggests that Dream Lover is the film that marks Pakula’s terminal decline, which perversely makes me want to see it.

    Yes, I don’t know what drives Ford into these glum slogs, other than that Witness was one, only good, and maybe he thought that was what he was best at.

  7. Aw, thanks for the encouragement, David! I will try, though my late show entry might be a little…late. Very fitting, I hope.

  8. We ALWAYS have late entries… many of them from me. So you’ll be in good company, or at any rate, company.

  9. You, sir, are wonderful.

  10. Thank you, you are also!

  11. Thank you! :)

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