"Lake Placid"

David E. Kelley's first major feature hits some bumps but serves up one hell of a croc.

Published July 16, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Writer/producer David E. Kelley specializes in snappy, urbane
comedy-drama, driven largely by quirky characterization. So,
naturally enough, his first major feature film is a monster movie set
in a remote rural location. As that suggests, "Lake Placid"
is a brave effort but often a pretty awkward one, blending
small-screen technique and big-screen spectacle. In its desperately
uneven early scenes, it features some cringe-inducing dialogue, a
tired city slicker vs. country rubes setup and superficial,
TV-style acting. I mean, maybe there are paleontologists with the
petulant, girly demeanor of Bridget Fonda, or Maine fish-and-game
wardens with the suave good looks and deadpan manner of Bill Pullman,
but both actors fail to make their professions even
the least bit convincing. Then there's the matter of hooking them up
at a remote lake where a foulmouthed widow has been secretly
nurturing a 30-foot killer crocodile.

But as irritating as "Lake Placid" sometimes is, it also
has an easygoing sense of fun, along with one of the more memorable
movie monsters of recent years. As its story becomes increasingly outrageous,
the film never takes itself too seriously or tries to teach any ponderous lessons. When Kelley's fast-paced comic zingers finally build to critical mass, the ensemble cast starts to enjoy itself and the mismatched ingredients
blend into a blissfully, stupidly surreal summer cocktail.

Kelley, of course, is the reigning genius of "quality"
prime-time TV, and should clearly be viewed as the auteur behind
"Lake Placid." Director Steve Miner, a capable genre
veteran whose credits include "Halloween: H20" and two
"Friday the 13th" films, is strictly a hired hand here. I have mixed feelings about Kelley's work. Officially, I admire "The Practice"; am horrified by the
gruesome gender stereotyping of "Ally McBeal"; and check in
and out of "Chicago Hope"; In truth, whether you love it or
hate it, "Ally," with its distinctive mixture of screwball
humor, New Age relationship wisdom and treacly idealism, is Kelley's
signature accomplishment.

There are definitely moments in "Lake Placid" when the film
feels like one of Ally McBeal's overblown Freudian daydreams,
rendered in grotesque detail. Kelly Scott (Fonda) is almost as skinny
and skittish as the eponymous single lawyer is, and she's supposed to
be a hardcore Manhattanite who's never camped and has a phobia of
ticks. When Fonda reads lines like "That's the second time I've
been hit with a severed head -- it upsets me," it's hard not to
imagine Ally in her I'm-trying-to-cope mode, hands raised before her
to demarcate her personal space.

Kelly's reasons for being in Maine are certainly Ally-like: Her boss, who's also her lover (a cameo by "Chicago
Hope" star Adam Arkin), dumps her for another co-worker and then
conveniently ships her off to the Maine backwoods, ostensibly to
investigate a mysterious reptilian tooth found in a dead scuba diver.
(No, this isn't set in the well-known Adirondack resort of Lake
Placid, N.Y., and the film's body of water is actually called Black
Lake -- go figure.) Prissy Kelly collides with laconic warden
Jack Wells (Pullman) and lunkhead sheriff Hank Keough (the fine Irish
actor Brendan Gleeson, largely wasted here), neither of whom believe
there's a crocodile in the lake or want this city girl prying into
their business.

The routine stranger-in-town comedy of these early scenes grinds
along tediously until the trio actually heads out to Black Lake to
meet the Bickermans, the lakefront's only full-time residents. Mr.
Bickerman has disappeared, and it seems that his wife, Delores (Betty
White), may know a bit more about the area's wildlife than she lets
on at first. White's heyday as the lascivious Sue Ann on "The
Mary Tyler Moore Show" was a long time ago, but she remains one
of those comedians who can make one basic shtick -- in her case, that
she's a hard-ass bitch in Suzy Homemaker drag -- permanently
hilarious. She's tailor-made for Kelley's dialogue: "Here's
where if I had a dick I'd tell you to suck it," Delores cheerily
beams at the sheriff.

At this point, no one but Delores understands what's really going on
in Black Lake, but word that something big may be living in its dark
waters has started to spread. Next on the scene, and finally pushing
the proceedings into rococo farce, is millionaire mythologist Hector
Cyr (Oliver Platt), who travels the globe armed with helicopters and
tons of high-tech gear in order to swim with crocodiles, which he
considers divine beings. Jack tells him to leave, but Hector snorts
derisively: "I'm a civilian, not a trout -- you have no
authority over me whatsoever." Hector is a ludicrous character,
but that's really the point, and the always-enjoyable Platt (seen
most recently in "Bulworth" and "Doctor
Dolittle") plays him to the hilt like a low-rent Zorba the
Greek, full of bombast, pretension and a love of life that may be
almost genuine. His comic-combative relationship with Sheriff Keough
is about as sophisticated as a Three Stooges routine, but it leads to
some of the movie's most inspired silliness.

All the bickering and pratfalling loosens up "Lake Placid"
tremendously -- the alleged sexual tension between Kelly and Jack
starts to seem vaguely plausible, and in short order the enormous
croc comes roaring out of the lake to kick the plot into high gear.
Oddly, the movie's sometimes oafish humor doesn't destroy the
claustrophobic atmosphere of the remote setting (captured very convincingly at an artificial lake constructed by the filmmakers in British Columbia),
or the effect of the fearsome beast. Miner has directed enough horror
films to understand the importance of making the audience wait and
then setting up a grand entrance for your
monster, and for all the spoofish qualities of "Lake
Placid," it delivers an impressive and terrifying behemoth. In fact, this is one of the finest creatures
of designer Stan Winston's illustrious monster-making career, and I
don't think it's an accident that most of the crocodile scenes were
done with full-size animatronic models rather than computer graphics.
Here's today's lesson for aspiring geek filmmakers: If you want a
really scary movie monster, then, dammit, turn off that Macintosh,
head out to the garage and build one.

By the time we get to the final human-crocodile confrontation, the
movie still hasn't offered any explanation of how a warm-water
reptile grew to gargantuan size in a cold-water lake. But as Delores
suggests, the croc didn't start ripping the bumpers off trucks or
downing helicopters until humans showed up to harass it -- what gives
us the right to decide it should be killed? Kelley's resolution of
that ecological dilemma isn't completely satisfying to either human
or crocodile, and I suspect "Lake Placid" may not
completely satisfy either "Ally McBeal" fans or horror
aficionados. Still, he gets full marks for ambition (even if the John
Sayles-scripted "Alligator" accomplished a similar generic
meld in 1980), as well as for believing that a lightweight summer
film completely devoid of teenagers can find an audience.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir

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