Basically, Instinct Is a Copycat … Calloused Alaskans With Soft Centers

Basically, Instinct Is a Copycat

The trailers for Instinct are misleading. They give the impression that this lurid, bizarre film about nature versus the most violent “instinct” of man is another Silence of the Lambs , with Anthony Hopkins as a savage, lunging Hannibal Lecter on the loose and Cuba Gooding Jr. as the man who tries to tame him. That’s only part of the sham.

Instinct incorporates clichés from several other superior movie favorites, pasting together bits and pieces of everything from Gorillas in the Mist to Shawshank Redemption and coming up with nothing new in the cutting-room carnage. It’s an allegedly inspiring tale on the Tarzan theme (man living in harmony with the apes) that clumsily masquerades as a prison thriller. In this screwy pudding, style buries substance and two Oscar-winning co-stars are left with bananas on their faces.

Looking like a cross between a grunting cave man and Moses, Mr. Hopkins is first seen growling like a pit bull in the dark cell of an African jail, where he’s been locked up for murdering two park rangers in the jungles of Rwanda. Once a world-famous primatologist at the University of Miami, he dropped out of civilization to live with the mountain gorillas and obviously went mad. Before this loopy movie ends, you may think you are heading in the same direction. Arrested, incarcerated and now extradited back to the psychiatric ward of a Florida prison so primitive, brutal and overcrowded it makes the old Alcatraz look like a Beverly Hills country club, the mute and mysterious Gorilla Man is assigned to the evaluation of a cocky, ambitious shrink (Cuba Gooding Jr.) who must prepare the prisoner for a sanity hearing.

The ambitious young psychiatrist sees a chance for career advancement and maybe even a best seller when he delves into the clouded mirrors of Mr. Hopkins’ deranged mind, but he has no idea what he’s up against. When the compassionate smiling, too-good-to-be-true shrink finally breaks the ice, Mr. Hopkins starts talking a blue streak, converting the naïve doctor through “gorillaspeak” and flashbacks calculated to convince doubting skeptics that monkeys are good and man is vile, we must learn to exist harmoniously with nature, and imprisoning animals in zoos is a big no-no.

Meanwhile, the filmmakers, who include director Jon Turteltaub and screenwriter Gerald DiPego, seem to realize they don’t have enough convincing material for a two-hour movie, so they inflate the plot with subthemes borrowed from other movies to pad the running time. Get ready for an entire asylum filled with seriously insane but strangely likable patients, sadistic guards, a fatuous warden and a mind-control game in which one man is allowed 30 minutes of sunlight per day if he draws the ace of diamonds from a deck of playing cards ( The Manchurian Candidate ). While Mr. Hopkins contemplates the foundation of humanity, the other inmates question the inhumanity of their persecution, and shades of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest descend, sabotaging the film even more.

It’s difficult to swallow this much spiritual redemption when it’s accompanied by turgid music and contrived close-ups of faces in the rain uplifted toward heaven. I won’t even go into the references to Alien , replete with inside jokes about Sigourney Weaver (who also played a monkey-obsessed anthropologist in Gorillas in the Mist , thus providing two inside jokes for the price of one).

Instinct tries to be both a standard race-against-the-clock psychological thriller and a laconic character study, and loses its footing between the two. By the time it clunks to a ludicrous close, Mr. Hopkins escapes from his maximum-security chains and is machete-hopping his way through the mountains of Rwanda again. Mr. Gooding’s shrink’s life will never be the same, and after a lot of painful histrionics and theological double-talk about the call of the wild, one can imagine them both in the sequel, foraging for coconuts in loincloths like Tarzan and Boy, and singing a fast chorus of “Way down in the Congo land lived a happy chimpanzee …”

Calloused Alaskans With Soft Centers

In Limbo , written, directed and edited by John Sayles, the landscape is Alaska, America’s “last frontier,” where the roads dead end and the people are all in need of a map. Heading a diverse group of life’s castaways are a local handyman named Joe (the excellent David Strathairn), once a basketball player until he smashed his knee and then a fisherman until he was responsible for the deaths of his two best friends, and a stranded nightclub singer named Donna (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) whose career has bottomed out in the middle of nowhere.

Donna has had a string of unsuccessful love affairs to the dismay of her sullen, miserable and suicidal teenage daughter Noelle (Vanessa Martinez). In a desolate town full of pioneers and drifters eking out a bleak living in canneries, real estate, lumber and tourism, Joe and Donna begin a relationship that is interrupted by the arrival of Joe’s half-brother Bobby (Casey Siemaszko), who talks Joe into crewing on his boat on a “business trip” that turns out to be a dangerous drug deal.

Up to this point, it’s a typical John Sayles movie overpopulated with dense characters trying to find tranquillity in the midst of social and environmental upheaval. But then the film throws us a curve. Joe, Donna and Noelle find themselves marooned on an isolated island without food or shelter, their lives hanging in the balance, to be rescued by a shady bush pilot (Kris Kristofferson) whose cargo plane will bring them salvation or death.

Living on algae and sea lettuce, their survival skills are tested in ways they never imagined, and they find the centers of their souls in the process. In a daunting geographic and emotional limbo, they wait to be saved, and Mr. Sayles plunges the audience into nail-biting suspense. Then he slam-dunks us into a vat of ice water. The plane is on its way. They gather on the beach. But what awaits them? Killers, or saviors? We will never know. Meanwhile, viewers may be as infuriated as they are exhausted. Maybe the outcome is not important. Through desperate circumstances three people have discovered what they’re made of already.

John Sayles films always seem to drag on for days, but Limbo has riveting situations and cohesive dialogue that links one scene to the next with honesty and intelligence. His hard-luck characters may be calloused but they are also capable of revealing soft emotional centers. You can never be sure what will happen next and the plot treks off into the wilderness along with the three central characters, but following the dark journey into limbo with them, you are mesmerized every step of the way.

Claiborne Cary: Ms. Right

On the cabaret scene, rush to Danny’s Skylight Room any weekend in June and treat yourself to some musical allspice in the company of the multitalented Claiborne Cary. In the old days, she would have been one of the trenchant, sophisticated headliners in those soigné gulches like the Blue Angel or the Upstairs at the Downstairs. Now, with a dearth of good singers and swanky rooms, a stellar off-the-beaten-path talent like this is lucky to find a monthlong gig at a place in the heart of Restaurant Row like Danny’s, and a joint like Danny’s is lucky to have her .

Blessed with a bawdy sense of humor and a malleable voice comfortable with jazz, show tunes and comedy material, she can breathe out notes like soft air from a cooling vent, then heat things up with punchy, intricate rhythmic lines that make the pulse race. Add a savvy, been-around look that is just right for a dramatic song like “Something Cool” and an uncanny acting technique that masks the darkness of a song like “Lush Life” with sweetness, optimism and humor, and you have a unique approach to selling lyrics that is rarely matched by generic cabaret singers who make up most of today’s menu fare.

An evening with Claiborne Cary can consist of many staples (smooth interpretations of standards like “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” and “Honeysuckle Rose”), wild swinging on Benny Carter’s jazz evergreen “Rock Me to Sleep,” comedy gems such as “Couch Potato Patootie,” and hilariously improvised bits that come right off the top of her pretty head like dandelion pollen. “Now I’d like to introduce my band,” she says, then turns around and proceeds to introduce each member of her quartet to each other.

Digressing momentarily for an anecdote about growing up in Iowa, she names every book in the New Testament she learned in school, then adds, “Why don’t they teach you something useful, like how to file for a divorce?” Moving back into the emotional subtexts of a stunningly phrased “Lush Life,” she displays every mood-altering personality trait of a barfly while perfectly enunciating every syllable of Billy Strayhorn’s lyrics.

So many dopey singers sing “distant gay traces,” but this gal knows the lyric is “distingué traces” and she gets it right. In fact, she gets everything right, and breaks your heart in the process. When she sings “I’m Too Old to Die Young,” a saloon favorite by Moe Bandy, she means it, but you get so much pleasure out of the way she sings it that you wouldn’t mind if she took you along with her. At any age, she’s a lovely way to go.