"Devil's Advocate"

Lawyers and moviegoers alike go to hell in the convoluted 'The Devil's Advocate.'

Published October 17, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

AT LEAST ONCE, every critic winds up sounding like the poor sap writers pitching scripts in the opening scene of "The Player." The "high concept" approach to making movies slaps together recognizable bits of movies so baldly that you're reduced to describing the result, a trifle idiotically, as "It's this meets this!" You know: it's "Tokyo Story" meets "Cocoon." This old Japanese couple goes to visit their children in the city, except the kids don't know that their folks are aliens who were sent to Earth years ago to recruit people for their home planet and ...

I offer this up by way of apology for having to report that "Devil's Advocate" is "The Firm" meets "Rosemary's Baby."

This legal thriller-slash-demonic-possession thingamabob is about an ambitious young sharpster lawyer, Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves), who's been recruited to work for a ritzy New York law firm whose head honcho, John Milton (ha ha, played by Al Pacino), turns out to be the prince of h-e-double-hockey-stick. (Like you couldn't tell that from the preview, where Pacino boils a basin of holy water with his finger and stands laughing amid curtains of flames.) The picture starts off slick and amusing, gets convoluted, draggy and strange round about the midway point, and ends up just plain ludicrous. The premise the movie takes off from -- that lawyers are the devil's minions -- might escape the wheezy moralism beneath it if the picture were imagined as a comedy about con men working within the law and the rubes who get taken. Then we might have been able to laugh at the fallen-angel legal eagles pulling whatever unscrupulous stunts they can come up with to get their clients off. The closest the movie comes to that is the slick self-satisfaction Reeves has when he's addressing a jury, or the way his unbroken string of acquittals serves as an aphrodisiac for him and his wife, Maryann (Charlize Theron). But the director, Taylor Hackford, and the screenwriters, Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy (adapting a novel by Andrew Niederman), have something else in mind.

In our first glimpse of Reeves, he's demolishing the testimony of a young girl who's been molested by her math teacher. Basically, like the people who are still outraged over the O.J. verdict, the movie is asking, "What kind of a man could do something like this?" (I've got a better question: What kind of a man would you want defending you if you were on trial for your life?) As a piece of entertainment, "Devil's Advocate" has a split personality: It starts out asking us to enjoy Reeves and Theron's sexed-up greediness and then tells us that they have to pay for the wages of their sins.

There are some genuine laughs as various celebs pay homage to Pacino (Alfonse D'Amato and Don King among them: Some sell their soul to the devil -- they must have sold their hair-dos) and as the horny Southern lovebirds Reeves and Theron get used to their swanky new Manhattan life. That life has some visual swank as well (a surprise, since every other film I've ever seen shot by Andrejz Bartkowiak has looked like sludge), including one doozy of an effect: Pacino's rooftop office has an open patio with thin paths cutting pools of water falling off the sides of the building (the production design is by Bruno Rubeo). But Hackford ("An Officer and a Gentleman") hasn't a clue as to how to make the tone shift from legal drama to the supernatural. When people start turning into demons and bas-reliefs come alive, it seems like the projectionist has slipped in reels from some other picture. To put it kindly, Hackford is not a director given to imaginative flights. He's always been most comfortable imitating classic Hollywood genres. (His last -- and best -- picture, "Dolores Claiborne," was the best "woman's" melodrama in ages.) That must be what he's doing when a gaggle of reporters rush from a courtroom verdict to crowd a row of pay phones the way they do in '40s movies: Apparently none of them has yet heard of cell phones.

With knockout performances in "Carlito's Way" and "City Hall" and "Donnie Brasco," Pacino has been on a roll lately. And at first he's kind of fun to watch in his designer suits, bragging about his sexual skills to Reeves or schmoozing any woman who crosses his path. But Pacino has always loved the chance to go over the top ("Scent of a Woman" anybody?), and soon he's popping his eyes, flashing his teeth and hawking up big, hearty Oh-what-an-evil-sensualist-am-I laughs. It doesn't help that the speeches he has to deliver about the transcendence of evil are very pleased with their own cleverness. Pacino is very bad here, but to be fair to him, playing the devil is as impossible as playing Christ, even if it is a more charismatic role.

Before the movie runs amok, Reeves gets some fun out of Kevin's cocksureness. And the Florida accent he employs, with its slow-dripping sensuality, suits him. (Though his own voice is just fine. He's the only person I know with a husky lilt.) His work here isn't going to convince the people determined to keep having snobbish fun ridiculing his voice or his looks, but then what would? Whenever I hear those remarks -- particularly from men -- I always sense panic. People tend to freak out when a man offers himself up to the camera as a sex object, especially when he does it this unself-consciously. Reeves lets the camera drink him in as surely as Bettie Page did. That makes some people uncomfortable, maybe because it isn't manly or some other fool thing. But if you can't appreciate physical beauty and charisma like Reeves', then why the hell are you going to the movies in the first place? He was made to be looked at.

And in "Devil's Advocate," he's not the only one. As Reeves' wife, Theron, who has a smile that brings out the roundness of her cheeks and masses of lush, blond crimped curls, is just yummy. She can act, too. Theron's Maryann is all enthusiasm and appetites. She tells you as much about the character when she's fanning herself after knocking back a few shots or dancing uninhibitedly with Reeves to celebrate one of his victories as she does when, trying to pull together her posh new apartment, she dejectedly sticks a piece of fried chicken in her mouth. Halfway through, the movie stupidly saddles her with a blunt-cut mousy-brown dye-job and a series of teary, increasingly unplayable scenes, as a combination of her husband's neglect and the surrounding beelzebubbery drives her mad. A movie that squanders a sexy, funny performance like Theron's has it all wrong. This isn't a woman you sacrifice to the devil; it's one you sell your soul to hang onto.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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