Lethal Dose to the Rescue

There's an old adage that says that by the age of 40, a man gets the face he deserves. If that's true then Clint Eastwood, the producer, director, and star of the death-row thriller True Crime, must have committed a capital offense or two of his own. To call it "lived in" doesn't do it justice: It's been lived in, booted around, dragged, punched, folded, spindled, and mutilated. By this point it is so creased from squinting that it has frozen into a sort of permanent, pissed-off sneer. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but with Eastwood, it limits the range of expression of an actor who, to begin with, has an emotional range that runs the gamut from A to a little past A.

As a result Eastwood the actor leaves Eastwood the producer/director with very little to work with. The solution is the one to which most performers who've made their reputations as tough guys come: He plays his tough-guy machismo for laughs. And for the first part of True Crime this approach is moderately pleasing. Or rather the first part of one half of the film.

I say one half because the movie operates on two parallel tracks. One track chronicles the ramshackle existence of Steve Everett (Eastwood), a reporter for the Oakland Tribune. From what we're able to piece together in the film's early scenes, Everett was once a newspaperman of considerable talent, but that was before the booze and the chronic womanizing took its toll. These days Everett is making an attempt to pull himself together, though from all appearances he's not in any hurry to do so. He may have switched from bloody marys to virgin marys, but he still smokes like a chimney (even at the office, where it's strictly forbidden) and can't seem to cut down on the flirting. At present he is sleeping with the wife of his paper's city editor (an entertainingly disgusted Denis Leary), who, when he's trying to reach the reprobate writer, just calls home and leaves the message with his own wife.

The reason the editor is trying to track Everett down is because he has a story for him. At midnight on that very night, an inmate on San Quentin's death row is going to be executed and the editor wants Everett to take over for a fellow reporter who was killed the night before in an automobile accident, go out to the prison, and conduct an interview with the inmate for a simple human-interest sidebar. No Dick Tracy stuff, he says. Just a simple human-interest story.

The time frame of the film is twenty-four hours, and while we're following Everett as he moves through his day, we're also counting down the minutes in the last day in the life of Frank Beachum (an impressive Isaiah Washington). The crime for which Beachum is being executed took place six years earlier. Since his sentencing Beachum has come to terms with his conviction (though he's never confessed his guilt), deepened his faith in God, and grown even closer to his wife (Lisa Gay Hamilton) and their young daughter (Penny Rae Bridges).

Having exhausted all their legal appeals, Beachum and his wife no longer entertain the possibility of any last-minute miracles. Everett, though, thinks he smells something funny. He's got a nose, he tells his editor-in-chief (a robust James Woods); that's about all he's got. And for the past several years while he was drinking, his nose was no longer dependable. (It went very wrong, for example, on a controversial rape case. Now that he's sober again, he thinks his instincts are back on track and he begins to conduct a quickie investigation, hoping to prove Beachum's innocence, certainly, but, of even greater importance, to vindicate himself and his "hunches.")

The problem here has less to do with content and more with style. From the outset Eastwood's basic approach toward his own character is light-fingered and comical. He encourages us to view Everett as a dinosaur from an earlier age of man, a newspaperman from the old school. In his easygoing way as a director, he draws laughs out of Everett's anachronism: the fact that he won't acknowledge the existence of, say, secondhand smoke; or that it's not cool to ask a female colleague to fetch him a cup of coffee. He wants to be a good daddy, but he blows an outing with his baby daughter by trying to combine a visit to the zoo with a little reporting. The result is "speed zoo," which leaves his daughter crying and covered with Band-Aids, and Everett's wife (Diane Venora) convinced that their relationship is over.

Beachum also has a daughter and, clearly, Eastwood wants to draw parallels between the murderer who seems to have excellent parenting skills and a good marriage and Everett, but they never emerge. That Eastwood cast his wife Dina, his daughter Francesca, and her mother Frances Fisher, in the movie has led some reviewers to speculate about the personal nature of the film. The feel of the picture is far too slack and lackadaisical to be personal. The notion that a reporter could be assigned to a story for a twelve-hour period and end up breaking the case and saving the accused man's life is preposterous.

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