"Playing God"

Robin Dougherty reviews 'Playing God,' directed by Andy Wilson and starring David Duchovny and Timothy Hutton

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

THERE'S NOTHING AMBITIOUS -- or even entertaining -- about "Playing God." It's not camp enough to be a bona fide turkey or full of enough small, thought-out acting moments from its costar to make us wish that, post-"Beautiful Girls," there were a Timothy Hutton resurgence on the way. Director Andy Wilson, who helmed episodes of the gritty British TV series "Cracker," makes his feature film debut by having his actors and stuntpeople merely go through the motions. Its comic moments, which depend on the looniness of deranged gangsters, fall flat because we've seen them done better -- by better actors -- dozens of times. Its drama, framed by intermittent film-noir voice-over and hinging on one character's presumed moral dilemma -- just falls.

The movie's main appeal would seem to be David Duchovny, star of television's "The X-Files" (and of next summer's "X-Files" movie, "Blackwood"), who is called upon to carry a drama that has none of the quirky trappings or comic infrastructure of his sci-fi TV show. And given the fact that the majority of the audience at the screening I attended walked right by the pile of free Duchovny posters available at the end of the movie, "Playing God" is essentially a cautionary tale for actors who reach beyond their limits -- and possibly for their fans, as well.

The story, however, is not without promise. It's about Eugene Sands, a drug-addicted surgeon who lost his license after a patient died on the operating table while he was working high. In an L.A. nightclub one night, he watches as the stranger standing next to him is gunned down. After hesitating, he rescues the victim, operating with objects on the bar and draining his wound with an impromptu apparatus made from straws and a plastic bottle. He goes home to get high, but is soon kidnapped and brought to meet Ray Blossom (Hutton), an impish gangster whose associate he had repaired in the bar. Blossom gives him $10,000.

Blossom, it turns out, is on the run from the Russian mobsters he's cheated and is now pursuing more illicit deals with some Chinese counterfeiters. He sends Sands to repair another badly wounded underling. He even gets him to patch up a Russian mobster -- just long enough for the guy to reveal what he's done with Blossom's "merchandise" and be shot dead for good. Blossom provides Sands with hotel rooms outfitted with operating equipment, even nurses, because he knows Sands can't legally practice in a hospital. The tension is supposed to arise from Sands' dilemma: by working for Blossom he can remain a doctor. But if he agrees to play, he's compromising what little integrity he may have left. If he refuses, we presume, he risks his life.

It doesn't help that Hutton never seems threatening. Sporting bleached-blond hair and a leather suit, he looks more like a minor rock star than the mastermind of a criminal operation. It's not clear that he's actually attracted to his moll, Claire, played by Angelina Jolie, or that he cares that the thugs in his employ are inept zombies. Thanks to a lackluster script (by Mark Haskell Smith, whose credits include a rewrite of "Anaconda"), Hutton doesn't get much chance to do anything with his character. Still, I found myself using the downtime to wonder what had become of this actor who eschews commercial Hollywood product yet -- until now -- never seemed to be slumming.

But if Hutton's Blossom is not fully realized, Duchovny's character, Sands, doesn't seem to be risking anything. He doesn't have any life to run from, much less go back to. As played by Duchovny, he's a cipher. Most importantly, he doesn't seem to possess the ego of a surgeon who, as he explains it, drove himself to amphetamine addiction because he was obsessed about staying awake and never going off duty. In fact, he doesn't possess any personality at all. That may come as no surprise to "X-Files" detractors, but for "X-Files" fans -- myself included -- there's something demoralizing about seeing Duchovny stripped of cult appeal.

Indeed, what "Playing God" makes abundantly clear is that "The X-Files" is primarily a comedy. The deadpan interchanges between Duchovny and Gillian Anderson -- who do have an authentic chemistry -- are funny because they parody the affectless image of stodgy government agents. The show's plots frequently send up its characters' self-seriousness. (How else to explain the success of the doppelgdnger episode, in which an alien assumes Mulder's shape and seduces Scully by injecting a pulse into that wooden character?) But until now, it wasn't so apparent that Chris Carter's beat-paranoia-till-it-squeals comic timing has been making up for what the actors lack. Here's hoping that, post-"X-Files," Duchovny isn't playing actor -- much less God.

By Robin Dougherty

Robin Dougherty is a frequent contributor to Salon. She is a freelance writer who lives in Miami Beach.

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