Been There, Seen This

At one point in the witless but well-acted Copycat, Sigourney Weaver's character, a criminal psychologist named Helen Hudson who specializes in serial killers, delivers a lecture on mass murderers to a packed auditorium. Hudson says, "The FBI estimates there could be as many as 35 serial killers cruising for their next victim even as we speak." And all I could think was, "Yeah, and probably twice as many movies about serial killers are now in development."

What do you need to know about this one that you can't figure out for yourself? Serial killer on the loose. High-profile criminal psychologist. Cop with doomed partner. The formula is so tired it makes Pablum look inviting by comparison.

At least the principals are women. And quite a Mutt and Jeff gal team at that. In addition to Weaver's towering shrink, the film features little Holly Hunter as a homicide cop. Both actresses are better than their material; watching them in this mean-spirited dreck is like seeing an overqualified job applicant desperately trying to play down his skills in order to get work. But though Hunter and Weaver may seem out of place, thank goodness for their slumming. Hunter is particularly amazing; she takes throwaway lines of dialogue and gives them dramatic resonance that neither screenwriters Ann Biderman and David Madsen nor director Jon Amiel ever imagined. Making audiences believe her as a mute woman in The Piano is nothing compared to making them buy her as a cop, but somehow she does it.

Sigourney Weaver, on the other hand, looks as if she could just dispense with her sidearm and kick an attacker's ass with her bare feet. Naturally she plays the helpless victim of the stalking killer. A brutal attack suffered a year or so earlier has turned her into a pill-popping, hard-drinking, net-surfing recluse with A shades of Vertigo -- a disabling case of agoraphobia. (Paying homage is one thing, but if Hitchcock were to witness this clumsy aping -- have I mentioned the Psycho-inspired shower scene? -- he would scream bloody murder. You know what I'd like to see? -- serial-killer movie in which the murderer goes after filmmakers who have ripped off Hitchcock. Unfortunately no one would be able sit through such a film -- it would be too long.) Weaver could sleepwalk through a role like this; instead she stays awake long enough to reprise her intelligent-woman-traumatized-by-a-violent-sexual-assault shtick from Death and the Maiden.

Oh, I almost forgot -- nice guy Harry Connick, Jr., convincingly plays against type as a drooling sociopath. You'll never listen to his romantic mood music the same way after seeing this performance. Truly twisted.

But if you're thinking of sitting through this grim pseudo-thriller because you're a fan of one of the actors, consider this plot wrinkle: Every cop in San Francisco, plus a smattering of feds, wants to catch this vicious serial killer. They get a hot tip telling them where and when they can apprehend the guy. Just as they're about to go get him, a big bust goes down in Chinatown. The film offers no explanation as to the nature of the bust -- drugs, gang war, whatever -- it just shows us the police station suddenly flooded with cops and handcuffed Chinese suspects. Then a young Chinese man takes Hunter's partner (Dermot Mulroney in a pleasant but thankless turn) hostage. Now what are the odds that a) this bust would occur at this precise moment; b) it would escalate into a hostage situation; and c) Hunter's partner would be the unlucky hostage? Remember: This happens five minutes before they are supposed to leave the station to nab the psycho killer. Bad timing, eh? It's all so stupidly improbable and irrational that you cannot help but think, "Well, I guess the evil serial killer needs more time to terrorize that shrink."

But for all the loose ends and half-baked subplots, this Copycat's biggest crime is the way it glorifies the very monsters it pretends to abhor. The movie unwittingly (at least I hope it was unwittingly) revels in the macabre cult of celebrity that has sprung up around these sick, self-important freaks. Bundy, Berkowitz, Gacy A Weaver's psychologist pronounces their names with a respect bordering on professional admiration, as if they were noteworthy historical figures rather than wretched, reprehensible vermin. We see their disgusting mugs (and some of their gruesome handiwork) magnified on-screen. Cops natter on about how clever the killer is. It's disgusting. In a society that worships fame above all else, Copycat showers even more publicity on a bunch of demented perverts who have already enjoyed too much hype.

 
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