Malicious Malpractice

Malice, Harold Becker's high-profile career gaffe, is one of the strangest films I've seen in a long time. Or maybe I should say two of the strangest films, because there's so little connection between the first 45 minutes and the balance of the film that they should have been separate features. Except that neither one is very good.

The opening half is a mildly suspenseful whodunit about a serial killer stalking the ivy-covered halls and bike paths of a stately New England women's college. Bill Pullman plays Andy Safian, the school's put-upon dean, who tries to make the best of a bad situation that's getting worse by the minute. Then director Becker and screenwriters Aaron Sorkin, Jonas McCord, and Scott Frank unleash the first of a flood of unlikely coincidences: the dean discovers the freshly raped and murdered body of one of his students. Safian briefly becomes a suspect in the killings, but the cops clear him almost immediately. Through a combination of flukes that plays like the writers had a bet on who could cook up the least plausible scenario, Safian stumbles upon the identity of the real ripper. Anyone who saw Sea of Love and was disappointed by the ending should be able to guess the murderer within seconds of the character's first on-screen appearance this time around. Becker resorts to the same cheap trick he used in the smarmy Pacino vehicle.

But then, if you excised all the cheap tricks, red herrings, and miraculous coincidences, Malice would have a running time of approximately twelve minutes. It's that sloppy. For example: the new stud surgeon in town went to high school with Safian. Mrs. Safian, played by Nicole Kidman with the emotional depth of a Star Search spokesmodel, says she doesn't like the physician but is obviously attracted to him. The doctor, with his high-six-figure income, needs a place to stay. The Safians have a spare room and badly need some extra cash. Guess where Mr. Hotshot Surgeon bunks down?

One minute Safian stumbles onto a body, then his old high-school chum moves in, then Safian accidentally solves the murders. Your basic uneventful week in the life of a college dean. But wait! Suddenly there's another totally gratuitous plot twist, and Dean Safian finds himself smack dab in the middle of a dumbed-down, bargain basement Body Heat. The serial killer story line is never heard from again. Instead the narrative veers into a tangled, breathless film noir with all the usual elements: a scheming woman at its core, insurance fraud, marital infidelity, double-cross, and murder. I've seen colanders with fewer holes. Adding insult to injury, instead of Body Heat's William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Ted Danson, and Mickey Rourke, you have to settle for Bill Pullman, Nicole Kidman, Alec Baldwin, and Bebe Neuwirth. Even the Cleveland Indians wouldn't take that trade.

In retrospect you realize the first act merely strained credulity. What follows stomps it into submission. If the second half were a boat, it wouldn't make it out of dry dock. It's simply a mess, and not even a stylish one at that. Sea of Love was no paragon of logic and credibility, but at least it had a certain visual flair and a lurid, world-weary charm (not to mention a leading man named Pacino). With Malice, director Becker has taken a giant step backwards. It's as graceless and as painful to watch as a Larry Holmes comeback fight. There are so many jumpy, unmatched cuts and continuity errors that at times it feels as if the thing were edited with a Cuisinart. That whoosh you hear is the sound of Becker's reputation plummeting.

This whole bizarre jumble reeks of a botched collaboration. As I've said before: there's no surer sign that a film is in trouble than multiple writing credits. In this case it took two writers to dream up the story and a third to help write the screenplay. You have to wonder if anyone told them they were working on the same movie.

None of the featured cast members distinguish themselves in this convoluted morass, but neither do they shoulder much of the blame. Pullman and Baldwin (who plays the surgeon) aren't half bad, although the former generates about as much heat in his bedroom scenes with Kidman (or her body double) as Macaulay Culkin might have. Of course, based on Kidman's amateurish performance, it's hard to pin all the blame on him. Nor can Anne Bancroft and George C. Scott, who go gloriously and unashamedly over the top in their respective cameos, be held accountable. Bebe Neuwirth and her peculiar now-it's-Boston, now-it's-Brooklyn accent is another story. Poor thing -- she's obviously still smarting from her breakup with Cheers's Frasier Crane. After this film, she'll be needing some of his professional advice. And while she's at it, maybe she can get the good doctor to cure Malice's split personality.

 
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