A Hitchcock Medley … Give This Man a Real Budget

A Hitchcock Medley

This was supposed to be the hot one for summer. Big stars (Harrison Ford, Michelle Pfeiffer). Major big-time director (Robert Zemeckis). A plot so top-secret that even Ms. Pfeiffer, on the talk-show circuit, confessed she didn’t know the ending. One screening for critics–and if you were absent, forever hold your peace. Well, Dreamworks’ allegedly hair-raising suspense thriller in the Alfred Hitchcock tradition, What Lies Beneath, has at last been unveiled, amidst the kind of secrecy that used to accompany book signings by Salman Rushdie. It is awful.

I am still pledged to secrecy about the plot, which seems to have been made up each day on the set, but if I call it Gaslight meets Psycho , do you get the picture? Harrison Ford even plays a character named Norman. Duh. He’s a scientist doing genetics research. Ms. Pfeiffer, luscious as ever, gamely plays his wife Claire, who has abandoned her own career as a cellist to follow him to a secluded country house on a lake in Vermont. The house plays the Bates Motel. The lake (and what lies beneath it) seems to be the one that drove Annette Bening into the loony bin in another incomprehensible Dreamworks disaster, In Dreams . Ms. Pfeiffer even has the same nightmares. Winds shake the house. The same picture frame crashes to the floor in splinters. Apparitions appear in the mirrors. Doors open at will. Sparks fly from the hair dryer. The bathtub fills with water in the middle of the night.

When the neighbor’s wife disappears, Norman jokes it away (“Maybe she was abducted by aliens”) and the audience, which is always smarter than the filmmakers, collectively sighs “Aha!” We’ve learned never to trust a wisecracking husband who makes his wife think she’s going nuts when the lights go out. But when the domestic mystery next door is quickly solved and dismissed as a red herring, the creepy stuff goes on and the movie turns into a ghost story.

Sleuthing on her own time, Claire discovers the house is haunted by a former student who had an affair with Norman, then committed suicide. Once the ghost is identified, and its motivations (revenge, natch) revealed, there’s only one step left–exorcism! But director Zemeckis, weaned on old Hitchcock scripts, isn’t finished with us yet. Things get eerier when the dead girl’s spirit takes over Claire’s body with the help of a Ouija board from Kmart, and Norman faces a thorny dilemma: how to get rid of the ghost without killing his own wife!

The tedium with which this all unfolds would force Hitch to order a complete script overhaul, but the deluded people involved in What Lies Beneath are oblivious to annoyances like unconvincing narrative, terrible dialogue and labyrinthine implausibility. Once the comely ghost has been identified and exorcised, we think we’re through with her, but she keeps coming back for more havoc. After the ghost is gone, there’s one gory shock after another, with a finale so messy it looks tacked on as an afterthought in post-edit.

By the time What Lies Beneath piles on most of the horror-flick contrivances and all of the clichés (including no fewer than three separate bathtub scenes right out of Diabolique ), everything seems borrowed and pasted together from better movies in the genre. The script, a first-time writing gig by an actor named Clark Gregg, is a predictable job of connect the dots. The music is road-company Bernard Herrmann. The direction is such a far cry from the edgy, offbeat, risk-taking stuff we’ve come to expect from the director of Forrest Gump that the audience already knows to shout “Don’t touch that cell phone!” as Ms. Pfeiffer reaches into the pocket of a dead body that is anything but.

Ms. Pfeiffer goes through the most illogical motions with the dedicated sobriety of an actress who desperately needs a good picture and knows this is not the right one, while Mr. Ford tackles the kind of emotionally charged role he’s usually careful to avoid (for good reason), with goofy results. Although he shows more animation than he did in the insufferable Random Hearts , he still appears nervous and detached in the love scenes, and the biggest scare in What Lies Beneath is what’s happened to his face. Unlike Redford and Newman, he is not aging gracefully. Craggy is good, but once his brows furrow and his eyes start rolling, he’s as spooked out as Tony Perkins in Psycho , and he looks held together by grout.

The biggest lesson to be learned from this $80 million fiasco is that you can’t promise a fresh slant on Hitchcock and have a character named Norman at the same time.

Give This Man a Real Budget

For charm and originality, look no further than Chuck and Buck , another strikingly offbeat portrait of a peculiar but lovable misfit from Miguel Arteta, the gifted young director of Star Maps . This dark comedy exposes the ambiguities of male friendship and the awkward pull between obligation and self-preservation in such a compelling way that you cannot fail to be moved by its sweetness and ingenuity. It is several feel-good notches above the usual gay-themed movies we’ve been getting lately, and its compassion, understanding and affection for needy people of all persuasions strikes a universal chord.

Mike White, who has been winning prizes on the film-festival circuit for his sensitive, emotionally affecting screenplay, also plays the leading role–a 27-year-old named Buck who has been obsessed with his childhood friend Charlie (whom he nicknames Chuck) throughout adolescence and young adulthood. Chuck (honestly and engagingly played by Chris Weitz, the producer of American Pie ) once had a sexual romp with Buck when they were kids, but he has since moved on to both a girlfriend and a career as a successful record executive in Hollywood, and he is anxious to put his past behind him.

When Buck invites Chuck to his mother’s funeral, they meet after many years of separation, and Buck’s pubescent infatuation grows stronger. He packs up his station wagon, follows his lifelong love to Los Angeles, sets up house in a motel room and actually begins stalking Chuck (albeit with the nicest intentions). Invading his old friend’s life, this pathetic nerd gets a cruel rejection and, in a humiliated state of depression, turns their story into a children’s play. Sucking lollipops and playing with his collection of cars made of matchboxes, Buck is a tragic figure of loneliness, while Chuck’s embarrassment is understandable. But they have much more to reveal and discover before it’s over, and as the film’s tender trajectory forces them to push forward in their lives, reconciling the children they once were with the grown men they must learn to be, Chuck and Buck winds its way into the viewer’s own heart without a trace of sentimentality.

I don’t know if Mike White is a skilled actor or not (he is certainly a marvelous writer of situations and dialogue), but he does such an expert job of moving you into the alienated time warp of a profoundly eccentric individual that he makes you forget you’re watching a movie. You literally feel you know all about Buck and his bizarrely funny world and you are grateful to spend quality time with him, no questions asked.

The entire cast is superb, but there’s one sensational performance worthy of special praise, by Lupe Ontiveros, a Latina actress who has toiled in hundreds of maid’s roles in Hollywood films without achieving the fame and applause she deserves. Her own status as a frustrated Hollywood outsider provides a special insight into Buck’s world, and as the crafty but kind director of Buck’s play whose maternal interest helps him shape his future, she literally steals the picture, making the kind of impact Fernanda Montenegro made in Central Station .

The overwhelming vulnerability in Chuck and Buck reaches out on several levels, and the young but immensely talented Mr. Arteta captures it triumphantly, shooting every frame digitally to save money. There’s no telling what this guy could achieve with first-rate camera equipment and a real budget, and it’s high time somebody gave him a chance to try.

Caruso and Stritch: Boys’ Night Out

Best friends for almost as many years as it took Ann Miller to admit she was finally old enough to vote, Jim Caruso and Billy Stritch are two guys from Texas who are pooling their considerable talents every Monday night in July at Arci’s Place (450 Park Avenue South) for the summer’s friskiest and most enchanting cabaret act. Of all the clubs in New York, by the way, Arci’s has the best food, friendliest service and most reasonable prices. Just thought you should know. You leave royally fed and, with Caruso and Stritch sharing the bill, doubly entertained.

From Mr. Caruso, expect humor, sass and surprises: Kay Thompson’s finger-snapping arrangement of “How Deep is the Ocean,” a great Johnny Mercer medley, a takeoff on Vernon Duke’s “Autumn in New York” called “Summer in New York” (with all the humidity and horror the title implies), and a deeply touching ballad arrangement of the Scarecrow’s “If I Only Had a Brain” from The Wizard of Oz . From Mr. Stritch, expect imaginative piano riffs and brilliant jazz chords on arrangements that sizzle: a combo of “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Crazy Rhythm” that flies off the keyboard and bounces off the wall.

This is the only act in the world that features a collaboration between Brazil’s Antonio Carlos Jobim and Broadway’s Fred Ebb, turning “The Girl From Ipanema” into “The Boy From Fire Island” (“In his hand a dry martini / And on his rump a wet bikini” … you get the picture). For Mr. Stritch on his own, pick up a copy of his new CD, recorded live at the Jazz Standard by After 9/Sin-Drome Records and featuring the ultimate in what he calls “ballad noir,” a creamy-dreamy rendition of Mel Tormé’s classic, “Born to be Blue.” For double pleasure, catch Caruso & Stritch in an unbeatable act of jazz, pop, comedy and conversation that is different from anything else in town. They are two of the very few people around to whom you can genuinely apply the word “insouciant” without blushing.