To live and lie in L.A.

Roland Joff

Published April 15, 1999 10:50AM (EDT)

With more tuning and a better script, "Goodbye Lover" might have been as
yummy/sleazy an entertainment as "Wild Things." As it is, even though the
steam runs out about a third of the way through, it's still something of a
treat. Pictures that understand the pleasures of tawdriness aren't so common
we can afford to look askance at a fairly lively piece of bitch-chic nastiness
like this one.

An L.A. noir played for laughs, "Goodbye Lover" is a satiric spin on "Double
Indemnity." Everyone is screwing everyone else -- both figuratively and
literally -- and sooner or later, (almost) everyone has to pay. As soon as you
see Patricia Arquette in her platinum version of Louise Brooks' Lulu coif --
the international sign for movie bad girls -- you know that the
characters are going to exist less as characters than as types. Arquette's
Sandra is the sexpot femme fatale. Her drunken husband, Jake (Dermot
Mulroney), is the handsome ne'er-do-well wreck. His brother Ben (Don
Johnson), who's not only Jake's boss but the man who's cuckolding him, is the
powerful man with a secret. There's also a tough, cynical cop (Ellen
DeGeneres) and the nice girl (Mary-Louise Parker) drawn into the scheming

A picture like "Goodbye Lover" has to stay about three steps ahead of the
audience, and that's a head start that the director, Roland Joffé, never
quite manages. He's never at one with the sleaziness, as John McNaughton
was with "Wild Things." Instead, he is too busy signaling that he's a "quality" director
who's doing some stylish slumming. In Joffé's first movie, "The Killing
Fields," the scenes of Pol Pot's Cambodia went to the center of your brain --
they seemed undeniable, both tranquil and fevered at the same time. But
Joffé preferred a career predicated on the style of the rest of that
picture -- strained liberal seriousness. That's why even his (not always
convincing) attempts to cut loose here seem like a sign of life.

"Goodbye Lover" has aspirations to translate noir avariciousness into the
current Los Angeles of economic self-empowerment -- EST for the '90s. It's a great
gag when Arquette's Sandra is riding in her car, reciting along with one of
success guru Anthony Robbins' motivational tapes, but the movie never really
develops the idea. The script, by Ron Peer, Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow,
tries too hard to be rude (Mulroney emerges into a political soiree with the
line, "Who do you have to eat out to get a real drink around here?"), and this
particularly hurts DeGeneres. It's nice to get to see her do something
beyond her usual pained befuddlement, but she's stuck with the movie's most
aggressively "outrageous" lines, and Joffé directs her to punch every
one. She comes off like the nice quiet girl who gets cast in a racy part in the
school musical. Joffé has better luck with Arquette, as she hatches her
plans while singing along to the soundtrack from "The Sound of Music" or
literally skipping off to church to do volunteer work. Or in her sex scenes
with Johnson, the funniest in a church organ loft accompanied by Bach's
"Magnificat." But there's really no character for Arquette to play -- just a
melding of second-hand notions of the noir sex-and-death goddess and her
own reputation for being "daring." She's game and funny, but smudged where
she should be sharp, subdued when she should be snuggling down into her
character's duplicitousness.

Part of what keeps "Goodbye Lover" afloat during the clunky patches and the
predictable plot twists you see coming for minutes before they arrive is
Dante Spinotti's cinematography. He's given the movie a look that's somewhere
between luscious and hard -- it's a bit like leafing through a
catalog and slavering over ridiculously chic things you know are beyond
your grasp. At times, he seems to be aping the expressionist look of '40s
noir (as when Arquette is framed in the painted lettering of a bank window
at night), and his use of skewed angles gives the picture a floating,
unsteady quality. When a character takes a spectacular header off a high-rise
balcony -- making a brief unscheduled stop on a neon sign on his way to the
ground -- it's merely an accelerated version of the topsy-turvyness already
at work in the camera movement.

Still, for a movie that's trying so hard to be cynical and provocative, and despite the fact that a lot of things in it just don't work, "Goodbye Lover" is a much more enjoyable and
affable picture than "Go."
Doug Liman's youth-market Tarantino lite is so soullessly preoccupied with
attitude that -- except for Jane Krawowski and Katie Holmes' smile -- it
seems untouched by human beings. Bits of recognizably human looniness are
all over "Goodbye Lover," even in its screw-ups. As the pastor of Sandra's
church, Andre Gregory doesn't do much more in most of his scenes than turn
on his crinkly-eyed smile -- and I don't think there was a moment he was on-screen when he didn't make me laugh. That smile turns out to be
spectacularly suited to the bland Protestant benevolence of a well-meaning
sky pilot who can't see the sinners right under his nose and would probably
offer them a warm "you can do better" pat on the shoulder if he did. Gregory
has the gift of appearing simultaneously oblivious and in on the joke. He might
be what you'd get if you crossed Edward Everett Horton with Harvey the
invisible 6-foot palooka.

Mary-Louise Parker, who's been building a body of impressive character
performances in pictures like "The Client" and "Boys on the Side," does
wonderful pop-eyed reactions when Johnson begins coming on to her. Her
Peggy is such a nice girl that it doesn't seem mean when she gets him all
revved up and then decides she'd rather snuggle and watch "Mildred Pierce" on
TV. And Johnson is a hoot. The preview audience I saw "Goodbye Lover" with
laughed derisively when his name came on-screen (that sort of automatic
judgment is a mug's game -- like the people who think they're being killingly
witty by dissing Keanu Reeves). Johnson had the last laugh. He's developed
some skill as an actor and some slyness in mocking his studly image. Here he's playing a guy who's such a practiced smoothie that when he opens his
mouth, things like "Baby, you're the one I've been looking for my whole life"
just pop out naturally. Johnson suggests some luxurious, obvious, irresistible
toy -- a red Camaro that's tuned to just the right purr.

By Charles Taylor

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

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