The bad stuff will come later, as Hollywood promises each summer. But for now, if you forget Godzilla (no problem), there is A Perfect Murder , a stylish and suspenseful update of Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder , and The Truman Show , the surprising battery-charger to Jim Carrey’s career, to remind us all that the summer movie season is off to a galvanizing start.
For anyone lusting for a psychological thriller fueled by sex, greed, jealousy and violent intrigue, A Perfect Murder fills the need nicely. Director Andrew Davis, better known for action epics like The Fugitive , and an unknown screenwriter who was formerly a stand-up comic, Patrick Smith Kelly, have taken an old war horse, the drawing room thriller, and given it fresh glamour, vitality and tension. Dial M for Murder , a popular play by Frederick Knott, was turned into a static film in 1954 by Alfred Hitchcock, who later admitted it was so dull he might just as well have shot the whole thing in a telephone booth. With all of the action confined to a London flat, it told the tale of a jealous husband (Ray Milland) whose wife (Grace Kelly) has fallen for another man (sappy Robert Cummings), driving him to blackmail an old school chum into murdering the wife for her money-a perfect scheme that goes awry when the wife somehow manages to kill her attacker instead.
In the stylish new update, the basic plot remains the same, but everything else has been changed. The setting is now a fabulous penthouse overlooking Central Park, and the action unfolds all over the place in a glittering New York that never looked so inviting. The husband is now Michael Douglas, no longer a has-been tennis bum but a powerful millionaire industrialist who roams the corridors of high finance like a lean and hungry leopard. The wife is now Gwyneth Paltrow, a sexy and glacial successor to Grace Kelly in every way, but she’s got claws of her own. No longer just a bored housewife, she’s a rich and clever liberated woman in her own right who works as an interpreter at the United Nations and doesn’t mind taking subways to slum it up with a struggling painter in a bug-stained loft in a crumbling section of Brooklyn.
The noble boyfriend is now Viggo Mortensen, who is not so noble anymore. In fact, the roles of the killer and the lover have been combined, making Mr. Mortensen (recently seen as Demi Moore’s brutal drill instructor in G.I. Jane ) a liar and a cad with a prison record that would be the envy of any career criminal. From his glazed snarl and snide toasts like “Here’s to stolen moments,” we know Mr. Douglas suspects mice in the woodshed. It’s only a matter of time before he makes the scruffy Mr. Mortensen a tax-free half-a-million-dollar offer to murder Ms. Paltrow for her trust fund in a cleverly orchestrated plot that can’t fail. The perfect murder backfires when the wife kills the intruder, who turns out to be a total stranger, and the fun really begins. The murder weapon is no longer a pair of scissors but a sinister-looking meat thermometer plucked from a luscious crown roast that made my mouth water. I won’t reveal what happens next, but from this point on, you can forget all about Dial M for Murder as all three stars start tracking each other in a deadly cat-and-mouse game of triple betrayal, and director Davis gets maximum suspense from a door key, a misplaced wedding ring and a shopping bag from Barneys.
This is an example of “opening up” stagebound material in the most productive way. From the crisp, contemporary dialogue to the use of New York as a fourth character, everything imaginable has been done to blow dust from a creaky, claustrophobic formula play and give the material new life. As the deadly murder plot unfolds from Wall Street to Harlem, and the characters maneuver their way through the Fulton Fish Market and Penn Station to trendy restaurants like the Gotham Bar & Grill and a lavish cocktail party in the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a world of culture and geographical access emerges that keeps the film from sinking to a moment’s lull.
For the most part, the cast takes to the rarefied ambiance with ease. As a manipulative control freak, Mr. Douglas has a poisonous charm, while Ms. Paltrow’s rebellious trophy wife seems both foxy in street clothes and alluring in Balenciaga. Mr. Mortensen, on the other hand, seems to be acting in somebody else’s movie. Too grungy to invade the world of style and money the others inhabit, he has a dangerous and venomous appeal of his own, but an unfortunate tendency to mumble incoherently in a monotone so low I doubt it could be picked up on a radar screen. In smaller roles, the fine British actor David Suchet adds an air of commanding authority as a police inspector of Arab descent; jazz singer Novella Nelson is a believable United States Ambassador to the U.N.; and Constance Towers brings patrician breeding to the role of Ms. Paltrow’s mother.
A Perfect Murder moves swiftly and entertainingly, with just the right number of puzzles, twists and shocks to keep you on the edge of your seat. It’s got glamour and intelligence, and the kind of lurid fascination that would delight Hitchcock, which is the ultimate endorsement.
Hey, Jim Carrey Can Act!
The pollen count is high, but The Truman Show has provided temporary relief, if not a permanent cure, for my allergy to Jim Carrey. Mugging outrageously like a spastic Jerry Lewis in a hill of red ants, he has somehow managed to build a movie career pleasing to a segment of filmgoers that does not include me. Now I wonder if he hasn’t been hiding some unforeseen talent, biding his time, waiting for the right thing to come along. He has found it. The Truman Show reveals a side of Mr. Carrey-attractive, vulnerable, sure-footed-we’ve never seen before.
As a likeable, warmhearted, thirtysomething preppie named Truman Burbank, he lives in a perfect house on a perfect block of a perfect island called Seahaven from which he has never roamed. On the 10,909th day of his perfect life, a klieg light falls from the sky and crashes at his perfect feet. Truman gets suspicious, then paranoid. He can stand in the middle of traffic, but nobody will hit him. Suddenly, perfection turns to horror. Truman discovers his entire life has been a bad dream. Without knowing it, he’s been the star of the longest-running true-life day-to-day soap opera in the history of television. The newspaper, the radio, everything is controlled as each day is catalogued for an audience of millions watching Truman since the day of his birth. The town is a set. The friends and neighbors he’s known his whole life are actors. The same people passing his house on a rotating basis are extras. Even his perfect wife Meryl (Laura Linney) is a member of the Screen Actors Guild with the longest-paying job since Lucille Ball. Truman is the human equivalent of a laboratory rat.
Quite naturally, he goes berserk, giving Mr. Carrey a chance to milk energy and humor from a real situation without making idiot faces or resorting to comic pratfalls. To say he gives the sincerest, most endearing performance of his life is an understatement. With 5,000 hidden cameras recording his every move-in his bathroom mirror, behind his steering wheel, even in bed-Truman has been broadcast “live” and unedited, with no script or cue cards, by a despot (Ed Harris) who created the show and now controls Truman’s life and ratings. The truth sinks in and Mr. Carrey goes slightly mad. The rest of the movie is about how he tries to escape. Wouldn’t you?
This black comedy, both hilarious and unsettling, is directed by Peter Weir, the brainy, unique Australian responsible for such offbeat films as Gallipoli , Picnic at Hanging Rock , Witness and Dead Poets Society , so don’t expect anything routine or obvious. Behind the laughs, Mr. Weir has more profound and controversial things to get off his chest about the control technology has over our lives, the power of television and the existence of God. The Truman Show is entertaining as an offbeat comedy, but it’s also a cautionary tale that asks the question, If television producers can create life, what’s to stop them from terminating it, too? Brilliantly written by New Zealander Andrew ( Gattaca ) Niccol and expertly directed by Mr. Weir, The Truman Show gives us much to ponder in an age when our inalienable right to privacy is becoming radically and depressingly obsolete.
Meanwhile, there is even more to applaud in the late-blooming miracle of Jim Carrey’s blossoming as an actor of charm, creativity and skill. While we root for Truman to reclaim his life from the bondage of make-believe, we find ourselves cheering for Mr. Carrey, too. Life imitates art, and we’re part of the show.
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