Clarice Is Claustrophobic

Jodie Foster believes in

recycling. Her screen appearances since playing agent Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs have been rare;

that Oscar-winning role, by her own admission, took a lot out of her. But she

did not invest all those months in the gym, pore through all those F.B.I.

manuals learning how to do things the rest of us little gray people will never

understand, research all those human survival techniques or practice the

perfect scream until she gave herself nightmares without an eye on long-term

dividends. In her new thriller, Panic

Room , she gets quite a cardiovascular workout. They should have called it Clarice Buys a House . You gotta be in

shape to act in this one. Hell, you gotta be in shape just to watch it.

First, the good news.

Considering most of the junk that crowds the screen these days, Panic Room is slickly made, well acted,

relentlessly exciting and never boring. It’s premise is simple-a troubled

divorcée (Ms. Foster) and her diabetic teenage daughter (Kristen Stewart)

abandon their comfortable country life in Greenwich and move to a humongous brownstone

townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper West Side (a “townstone,” the hatchet-faced

realtor calls it) the size of the Museum of Natural History. At the top of an

interminable gnarl of staircases, next to the master bedroom, there is even

what medieval kings used to call a castle keep. The realtor calls it a “safe

room”: four concrete walls, a buried phone line separate from the other cables,

a ventilation system to save you from suffocating, a bank of surveillance

monitors that shows you what’s happening in every other room in the house, and

a protective door of four-foot steel that can’t be opened from the outside once

you lock yourself inside the room.

This place has all the charm

of a city morgue. Boris Karloff wouldn’t live there. The whole thing gives

Jodie the creeps, but for reasons only the screenwriter knows, she buys it

anyway. Naturally, on the first night, there’s a howling rainstorm and the old

mausoleum is invaded by three vicious thieves looking for millions in cash left

behind by the former owner. The terrified women lock themselves inside the

panic room-not exactly the perfect sanctuary for a distraught mother with

claustrophobia and a sick daughter who has left her insulin needles in another

part of the house. Even worse, it turns out the missing fortune is locked

inside the room with them. These girls are in trouble, big time-as Thelma

Ritter once said in All About Eve ,

everything but the bloodhounds snapping at their rear ends.

In the shockfest that follows, there’s a new horror per minute.

Brawny of biceps and beady of eye, Jodie meets every challenge. The bad news is

that what starts out as a real situation (geez, Gert, this could happen to

you!) turns preposterous. When the brutal intruders try to choke them out by

pumping gas through the ventilating system, Jodie throws a lighter down the

chute and envelops one of the attackers in flames. When she finally retrieves

her cell phone, the signal is dead. I have never met a housewife who knew how

to cross the telephone wires to get a dial tone. Then, when she reaches 911,

the operator puts her on hold. This goes on until Jodie is outside, the killers

are inside with the daughter who is having a diabetic attack, and things turn

even uglier … but why spoil the rest? This movie is rugged enough to give a

couch potato a stroke.

Panic Room is elevated

by many fastidious talents, not the least of whom is writer David Koepp, who

penned the screenplay for one of my all-time favorite thrillers, Apartment Zero . The director is David

Fincher, who specializes in grim, repellent and terrifying tales such as Alien 3 , the woefully misguided Fight Club and the unforgettable Seven . What he can do with cameras in

the dark is impressively nasty, and he seems to have a gruesome affinity for

the dismal fates awaiting naïve rubes who move from rural areas to New York,

where the least of their fears is the rats. (Jodie Foster in Panic Room and Brad Pitt in Seven both move to the city from the

country to find themselves in hell.) So much of the movie takes place in the

shadows that there are times when you wonder if Mr. Fincher has ever heard of

electricity. Milton, Chaucer and Dante are obvious influences.

Almost the entire thing takes place in one night inside the walls of the same

confined set (think Audrey Hepburn in Wait

Until Dark ), yet the entertainment value Mr. Fincher gets from

claustrophobic muck when good people try to survive in the dark is compelling,

and the contrast between Panic Room ‘s

climactic outbursts of deplorable bloodshed and the dazzling sunlight of the

film’s peaceful epilogue in Central Park makes for a startling dramatic

metaphor.

The performances serve the

material confidently. Jodie Foster is such an expert at handling big scenes as

well as small details that she keeps you fascinated throughout. Jared Leto and

country singer Dwight Yoakam are convincingly menacing as the two most

dangerous marauders, and the always reliable Forest Whitaker, saddled with the

clichés as the nice-guy member of the trio, walks the line between hero and

hood. No actor could do more to balance audience sympathy and remain in

villainous character at the same time. I am still wondering why the husband,

who has been described throughout as a millionaire Wall Street investment

tycoon, finally turns up looking like a 100-year-old Bowery bum. How does the

daughter know to signal a neighbor across the street with an S.O.S. on a

flashlight? When Clarice Starling meets Nancy Drew, it’s a team you definitely

want on your side if danger strikes. Panic

Room doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny, but at least it’s fun to argue

about. Flawed but riveting, it won’t be everyone’s cocktail of choice, but if

you can suspend disbelief long enough, you’ll get a whopping good wallop

without the hangover.

Tele-tubby

Robin Williams

If Panic Room is the

color of ashes, the fruit-loopy comedy Death

to Smoochy is all the nauseating hues in a box of 48 Crayolas. Here is

truly a movie that is every bit as awful as its title. I guess it’s intended as

a sendup of the greed, avarice, fraud and behind-the-scenes deceitfulness in

network children’s programming, but everything about it lands with a thud as

artificial as a pie in the face.

Rainbow Randolph (Robin

Williams) is a kiddie-show icon

surrounded by dancing midgets in wigs the color of exploding sorbets who

exploits moppet consumers with unhealthy products like Krinkle Krunch and Icy

Pops while singing “Friends Come in All Sizes.” In real life, he’s a vicious

con king on the take from sponsors and gangsters alike. When this duplicitous

clown gets busted for extorting bribes from parents to get their kids on his

show, the scandal ruins him. It’s up to network honchos Jon Stewart and

Catherine Keener (Randolph’s ex-girlfriend, who seems to have slept with

everyone in kiddie TV except Pee-wee Herman) to find a new clown with a

spotless reputation. That dope is nerdy Sheldon Mopes (played by that excellent

actor Edward Norton, who knows he’s slumming and shows it). Mopes is a disaster

reduced to playing fun fairs, retirement homes and rehab centers, but when he

dons a fuchsia animal suit and calls himself Smoochy the Rhino, his ratings

soar.

Smoochy has high ideals to

reach the level of his idol, Captain Kangaroo, by delivering wholesome

entertainment and resisting the sale of products with fat and sugar. While the

dastardly Randolph plots one treachery after another to reclaim his old fame-filling

Smoochy’s on-air organic cookie jars with treats shaped like huge dildos,

luring the purple rhino to a neo-Nazi rally where the skinheads yell ” Heil , Smoochy!”-Smoochy’s two-faced

agent (Danny DeVito) and a phony charity promoter (Harvey Fierstein) join the

skullduggery for their own gains. Even when Smoochy gets arrested and smeared

by the tabloids as a racist rhino scumbag, innocence triumphs: The kids love

Smoochy. Randolph will not sleep until the rhino takes a permanent “dirt nap.”

There’s only one way to insure the ultimate revenge: death to Smoochy! As it

leads up to a luridly overproduced ice show, the proceeds of which will rebuild

the Coney Island methadone clinic where Smoochy was discovered, the movie turns

idiotic and violent. Now it’s up to the miraculously rehabilitated Rainbow

Randolph to stop a deranged junkie killer called Buggy Ding Dong. Have you had

enough, as the Republicans used to say?

I suppose there is something

to be said about the corruption of innocence in kiddie TV and the jockeying for

power and profit by marketing dangerous products to a consumer audience in

pigtails, but all Death to Smoochy

does is scare the living daylights out of the very under-6 audience its corny

production numbers (by David Newman) aim to embrace. Danny DeVito’s bewildered

direction gives everyone free rein to fly over the top of the circus tent like

a rocket launching. The film has no trajectory and finds no ballast between the

murderous violence and the gumdrop goofiness, and it all just explodes in your

face like a blast of bubble gum.

Robin Williams gets a chance to display his vast repertoire of

accents and disguises, but every time he crashes into another brick wall the

joke gets thinner. Edward Norton is one of the most pathologically wasted young

actors on the screen; his range is admirable and his skills are vast, but he

can’t seem to find a script as intelligent as he is. I don’t know what he’s

doing frittering away his time in a mess like Death to Smoochy . Maybe he’s not Tom Cruise. Maybe he’s glad. But

he’s not one of the Three Stooges, either.