Aversion Therapy

Photo: Ava Gerlitz

When Michael Douglas played a dissolute English-lit professor in Wonder Boys, his scruffy lassitude was keenly enjoyable to watch. Douglas has so often played overwrought in the movies that his underwrought portrayal in that film looked less like a change of pace than like a liberation. Unfettered by wrath, snarl-free, he seemed to be truly enjoying himself for once. But then came Traffic, where he hardened his jaw for Academy voters, and now there’s Don’t Say a Word, in which Douglas once more offers up his taut profile for our contemplation. Playing a psychiatrist whose 8-year-old daughter is kidnapped, he gives a more nuanced performance than you may have dreaded, but it’s still in the clenched Douglas mode. Maybe those nuances – the occasional dips into real feeling – are a holdover from his experience on Wonder Boys. When Douglas goes back to his usual wire-drawn demeanor now, there’s an element of inauthenticity in it, as if he didn’t really believe in what he’s doing. Or maybe what he doesn’t believe is the tawdriness of what he’s doing. He’s moved beyond this type of material, and yet here he is saddling himself with it once again.

It’s not just Douglas who has been through it all before; so have we. Don’t Say a Word, which was directed by Gary Fleder from a script by Anthony Peckham and Patrick Smith Kelly, should be therapeutic for all those members of the audience who think they’re too thick to stay ahead of a typical mystery thriller’s twists and turns. No such problem exists here: You would have to have been born yesterday to miss the switcheroos and reeking red herrings planted in this pulp.

Douglas’s Dr. Nathan Conrad, who treats troubled teens in his cushy Upper West Side practice, dearly loves his little daughter, and just in case we didn’t register that fact, we’re subjected early on to a nighty-night bedtime scene that would have given Dr. Seuss the hives. Clearly something awful is about to happen to the child, especially since her mother (Famke Janssen) is laid up in a leg cast from a skiing accident and it’s Thanksgiving Eve. (There must be a computer scriptware program for this sort of by-the-numbers screenwriting.) When the daughter is kidnapped, it’s a relief: The other shoe has dropped. Soon, enough shoes to fill Imelda Marcos’s closet will drop.

The daughter’s freedom will be secured only when Nathan elicits from his newest patient, the wraithlike young Elisabeth Burrows (Brittany Murphy), a six-digit number locked away in her buzzing brainpan. The kidnappers want this number, their passport to a stolen diamond, by day’s end – or else they will do very, very bad things. Alternately babbling, taunting, and comatose, Elisabeth is being tended to by Nathan as a favor to a colleague (Oliver Platt) at the big, grimy mental institution where Nathan used to toil before he went upscale. Presumably, his current predicament is retribution for his opting to limit his practice to spoiled rich kids.

Having a psychiatrist use his wiles to elicit crime clues from a patient is a promising plot development, especially when the doctor’s own fate is at stake and he must bring the patient into his own distress; but the filmmakers make so little of Nathan’s clinical expertise that he might just as well be a cop, or your friendly local barkeep. And although Elisabeth is touted as a brilliant dissembler able to mimic any psychoneurotic state, she comes across more like Ophelia on the fritz. The expected matchup of wits between her and Nathan rapidly devolves into a surrogate daddy-daughter routine. This is a movie that wastes no time getting down to the soggy center of things. Amid the mayhem, no heartstring is left unpulled. I’m surprised nobody thought of giving Nathan’s daughter a puppy for the bad guys to splatter.

Ben Stiller appeared at the 1996 VH1 Fashion Awards as male model extraordinaire Derek Zoolander, and the moment should have been this character’s triumphant debut – and farewell. Instead, as director, co-writer, and star, Stiller has given Derek his own feature film, Zoolander, and the results, for the most part, are grim. Doesn’t Stiller realize that the fashion world is already its own parody? As the deity defending his title of Male Model of the Year, the ultra-dim Derek sucks in his cheeks (all four of them) and strides about in what looks to be a flame-resistant silver snakeskin combo; he’s aggressively fey and yet he’s given a sort-of girlfriend (Christine Taylor), a Time magazine reporter, to dote on. Such is the daring of this movie. When he’s playing a relatively normal guy ringed by eccentrics, as in There’s Something About Mary and Meet the Parents, Stiller can be flat-out funny. In Zoolander, he’s just one nutso among many, and he cancels himself out. Jerry Stiller brings some relish to the role of an old-time agent – the kind who flaunts his chest hair while wearing what could be a rug – but most of this high-fashion comedy is strictly off the rack.

In Brief
The French auteur Jacques Rivette has such a vaunted reputation for making forbiddingly long and abstruse movies that his new film, Va Savoir, which lasts a breezy two and a half hours, may disappoint his true believers. It’s practically a hiccup in the Rivette canon, but I rather like parts of it. I was worried when I learned the film was about the complications of three men and three women during the run of a Pirandello stage production, but Rivette keeps the life-is-a-play metaphysics to a minimum, and the cast, including Jeanne Balibar and Sergio Castellitto, is attractive… . Stephen Frears’s Liam, which is mostly shot through the eyes of a 7-year-old Irish Catholic boy (the marvelous little Anthony Borrows) in Liverpool during the thirties Depression, has some rapturously observant sequences concerning childhood; but when the story eventually bears down on piggy priests and the wages of sin and the local Fascist Party, Frears’s normally deft hand turns uncharacteristically heavy.

Don’t Say a Word
Directed by Gary Fleder; starring Michael Douglas and Brittany Murphy.

Directed by and starring Ben Stiller.

Aversion Therapy