They Shoot Pelicans, Don't They?

The one thing it is not is brief. The bird it most resembles is not a pelican but a turkey. And the answer to the question all of America has been waiting to hear is...no, Julia Roberts does not contract jungle fever with Denzel Washington. She gives him a peck on the cheek, walks away, has a change of heart, gives him a really big hug, then walks away again. That's it.

That Pretty Woman and Malcolm X don't heat it up (even though their characters do have an affair in the John Grisham novel from which the movie was taken) is just one letdown among many in The Pelican Brief. This movie is so bad it makes this summer's Grisham fare, The Firm, look positively Hitchcockian by comparison. Not that America's highest-paid actress cares one whit what America's lowest-paid critic thinks of her big comeback after a self-imposed two-year absence, but a few more pictures like this, and the disparity between Julia's asking price and my own should diminish precipitously.

Roberts plays Darby Shaw, a brilliant law student sleeping with her equally brilliant but alcoholic professor, Thomas Callahan, played by Sam Shepard. A pair of Supreme Court justices (one of them portrayed by Hume Cronyn, inexplicably made up to look even older than he is) are assassinated, and the feds blame it on an international terrorist. One of the justices was Callahan's mentor, and ambitious little law student Shaw disappears for a week to research the murders and then develops her own speculative conspiracy theory about the assassination for her lover's perusal.

"Don't laugh," she pleads as she hands the fruits of her labor to her lover. "It was ludicrous of me to think I could solve it, right?" What, a humble law student with no access to government research solving an assassination that even the FBI and the CIA can't? Ludicrous? Nah.

This is, after all, a movie, and one taken from a John Grisham novel at that. Of course her little theory is right on target. Her brief solves the assassinations and helps expose a big conspiracy involving a major contributor to the president's campaign and a massive cover-up to boot. One problem, though -- her project, now referred to as the Pelican Brief because it points a finger at some shady characters who want to drill for oil in protected wetlands where the endangered big birds thrive, falls into the wrong hands. Surprise! In short order the good guys start dropping like flies, and Darby Shaw goes underground.

The filmmakers never make clear who's doing the killing or why, or, until the end, even why the Pelican Brief is so significant -- but in a film this shoddy a little clarity might seem out of place. Desperate Darby enlists the aid of a skeptical newspaper reporter, Gray Grantham, played by Denzel Washington. Her rationale for selecting that particular journalist? Her professor, Callahan, saw him being interviewed on TV once and liked the guy.

Quick as you can say formulaic pseudo-thriller, it's Darby and Gray against the world. Together they compile the evidence Grantham's editor deems necessary to expose the whole mess in print. Dozens of contrived scenes of Darby in jeopardy alternate with dozens of boring scenes of Darby doing research. The whole silly mess reaches its most absurd heights during a chase through a bank parking garage that ends with Darby and Gray being cornered by a gun-toting woman. (It's one of those sloppy thrillers where you're never sure for whom the bad guys are working.) Our heroes escape seeming certain death when a Doberman pinscher that just happens to be lounging inside a parked car with the window conveniently rolled down lunges at their pursuer's arm, causing the stalker to drop her gun.

The bad guys can't nick Julia or Denzel with a veritable fusillade of gunfire, but can pick off a flea with a derringer from a hundred yards away. There's a cold-blooded assassin who murders an old man with a shot from a silencer-equipped pistol in the privacy of the codger's bedroom, then strangles another man with a rope in the front row of a movie theater. It doesn't make much sense: He uses a gun on a helpless old geezer in a place where no one can see him, then strangles a much younger guy who might offer some resistance in a public place. But if you're looking for logic, look elsewhere.

The role of Darby Shaw doesn't require much more of Roberts than doing the damsel-in-distress thing, and she makes even that look like a challenge. Washington and Shepard work hard not to embarrass themselves, the former succeeding better than the latter. Robert Culp as the Reaganesque marionette of a president has some very funny moments as well as very amateurish ones, while John Lithgow as Grantham's editor provides a little spark. John Heard as a doomed FBI agent and Tony Goldwyn as duplicitous White House Chief of Staff Fletcher Coal do the best they can with thankless parts.

This is supposed to be Julia Roberts's comeback vehicle. But if The Pelican Brief is any indication, maybe it's time for America's sweetheart to take another long sabbatical.

 
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