In the postwar lull between Iraq and tax extensions, people are understandably searching for pleasant, mindless ways to pass the time. They won’t find them at the movies. In a week so lacking in real news that even The New York Times has filled its pages with riveting features on professional fire chasers and pet alligators, you can turn to an onslaught of new movies for escape, but expect no rating above “dismal.”
Since nothing I’ve seen merits more than a passing yawn, it’s a good time to catch up. Lumping the new releases together in no particular order, the misery I suffered in the Russian horror House of Fools, directed by the ridiculously overrated Andrei Konchalovsky, does deserve special scorn, but I don’t have the stomach to rehash it. Need I say more than that it’s a freak show about an insane asylum during the first Chechen war. (Now there’s a subject that will have them lined up to get in.) After two squalid hours in which the inmates of the violent ward-many of whom are played by actual schizophrenics and other handicapped, crippled, facially deformed or brain-damaged patients-line up for toilet privileges and live on a diet of porridge and cocoa, I’d had enough. Comedy or melodrama? Who cares? When I bolted, a helicopter had just crashed behind some lunatic with an accordion, who stood in the flames playing a polka.
Coherent thrillers are rare, but Identity doesn’t bother to make even the briefest shred of sense. If every new film coming out of Hollywood these days seems recycled, Identity is Agatha Christie Visits the Bates Motel. (That purloined promise actually hints of more thrills and chills than this moribund flop ever delivers.) It’s a stormy night. Somewhere in the desert, the roads are flooded. A man, his wife and their little boy are smashed in the blinding rain by a reckless limo driver. The wife is in a coma. The cell phones aren’t working. They head for a sleazy Nevada motel, where they’re joined by a cast of character clichés from Central Casting we’ve all met before, in better films-the hooker with a bag of money (Amanda Peet), the has-been movie star (Rebecca De Mornay, who has seen better days), her chauffeur (John Cusack, who is clearly slumming after last year’s Max), a young couple on their wedding night, a cop (Ray Liotta) transporting a handcuffed prisoner, and a demented, eye-rolling, mouth-drooling desk clerk who makes Tony Perkins in Psycho look like an ad for Vacation Bible School. From here on in, the camera creeps through a series of dark motel rooms while a maniac wipes out the cast, one by one. The actress goes first, and her severed head ends up in the laundry-room clothes dryer’s spin cycle. Each new corpse is accompanied by the motel-room keys in descending numbers. Ten victims, all born on the 10th of the month, in 10 motel rooms. It’s not nice to steal from Agatha Christie; one character even references 10 Little Indians, sometimes called And Then There Were None. Unfortunately, nothing about this version is anywhere near as good. When the plot narrows down the victims to the final one, who will be alive to identify the killer? Ah, these are the hooks that keep fools sitting in their seats, praying for a surprise.
Alas, there’s no payoff. This dumb, pretentious rip-off was helmed by James Mangold, director of the dreadful Kate & Leopold, and written by somebody named Michael Cooney, who both wrote and directed Jack Frost II: Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman. So much for skill and craft. Both are too obsessed with technology, special effects and infuriating red herrings that defy convention to deliver a thriller that could remotely be misconstrued as logical. The script is laughable, the characters ludicrous. Why does the limo driver-also an ex-cop who masters the art of sewing human stitches in 30 seconds-read Jean-Paul Sartre when he isn’t detonating bombs? And the mystery’s elaborate explanation is so confusing and unmemorable that you’ll forget it even as you’re watching it unfold. Sometimes the movie runs backwards, like Memento; then it cuts abruptly to a judge reviewing the case of a maniac named Rivers. A psychologist (Alfred Molina, in a career sinkhole after Frida) argues that Rivers is too insane for execution. What does any of this have to do with the rest of this movie? Good question. By the time we get around to Rivers, the entire cast of Identity is dead, including the hero, played by Mr. Cusack-or is he? In the end, Rivers the killer turns out to suffer from “disassociative identity disorder,” which means he is, in effect, several maniacs put together-i.e., the same maniac who killed off the people you’ve been watching during the previous endurance test, but with many separate identities-or maybe he’s just one of the surviving victims, or maybe all of the victims put together, who only exist in the hero’s imagination. I’m not supposed to spoil the party by revealing too much, but trust me: This movie is so preposterous, contrived and souped up with metaphysical gumbo that, no matter what I tell you, you will end up with another solution entirely. As the movie self-destructs like a suicide bomber, comes the dawn: The identity of the killer back at the Bates Motel doesn’t really matter at all! And neither does Identity, a lame-brained nut job in search of an identity of its own.
Confidence achieves new meanings of “boredom” undreamt of in the Random House Dictionary. Ed Burns heads a gang of confidence men who will con insurance companies, bookie clubs, the cops-anyone that comes along. This time around, they make the mistake of scamming the mob, represented by a big-shot L.A. porno king, smarmily played by a gum-chewing, scene-stealing Dustin Hoffman. Since he can’t repay the money, Mr. Burns works off the debt with an even bigger $5 million scam. Two crooked cops he employs are suddenly approached by another secret agent (Andy Garcia) who’s conning them. When lying, cheating and manipulating finally takes on an erotic charge for Mr. Burns, he breaks his own rules and takes on a trashy female partner (Rachel Weisz) who cons him. Everyone in the movie is conning everyone else in the movie. The End. Overplotted, overcontrived, overshot and overedited, Confidence is a weak attempt to disguise a very small idea. The biggest of the many problems it faces is a deadly lack of chemistry between Ms. Weisz, who looks like a deadpan Kirstie Alley with delusions of grandeur, and Mr. Burns, a smug bus-and-truck-company version of Ben Affleck. Forget about the movie, which is awful, and consider the possibility that, like Saddam Hussein and his many stand-ins, Ed Burns and Ben Affleck may be the same person! They look alike, talk alike, act alike, flirt with the camera alike in what passes for acting, play the same roles, and look disdainfully down their pretty, sculpted noses at their material in the same way. Honestly, has anybody ever seen them in the same room at the same time?
More cinematic tedium is pumped through the anemic veins of Owning Mahowny, a gambling dud that busily conceals the talents of its excellent participants faster than a squirrel hiding pine nuts. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Minnie Driver, John Hurt and Maury Chaykin are just some of the actors who try in vain to work up some adrenaline for a film that remains steadfastly dedicated to its own inertia. Mr. Hoffman, who is making a habit of this kind of thing, plays Mahowny, a dull Toronto bank manager with such an impeccable record for excellent judgment that nobody realizes he’s been draining the cash from the accounts of various investors for years, milking bank loans to pay off huge gambling debts. Ms. Driver, unrecognizable in a blond wig and horn-rimmed glasses, is his naïve girlfriend. Mr. Hurt plays the oily boss of a casino in Atlantic City who moves moon and sand to get Mahowny’s bankroll transferred from Vegas. The movie cuts ever so slowly from the victims to the casino owners, who stop at no luxury to get high rollers to their gaming tables, to the cops who don’t know what’s going on but suspect the worst, to the corrupt bank officials who only care about one thing-making a profit on the interest of the overdrafts before Mahowny goes to jail. Which he eventually does, though only for a brief period: Mr. Mahowny is apparently considered something of an eccentric in Toronto, where these events allegedly took place, from 1980 to 1982.
Knowing all of this, the movie is still hard to believe and impossible to comprehend. None of the get-rich-quick financial details made much sense to me. They never do-which is probably why, unlike the Vanderbilts and assorted drug-addicted rap stars, I will always be on close terms with the word “mortgage.” The thing to cherish here is Philip Seymour Hoffman: He works fast and cheap, takes weird roles that leading men don’t want, and is fearless and versatile. From the arrogant hedonist who orchestrated his own death in The Talented Mr. Ripley, to the flaming drag queen who befriended a tough homophobic cop in Flawless, to the grief-stricken glue-sniffer who flipped out after his wife’s suicide in Love, Liza … , Mr. Hoffman is always shocking, unique and memorable. Isn’t it time this pie-shaped phenomenon finally shuffled his frame into a movie as indisposable as he is?