"88 Minutes"

Al Pacino tries hard to make this squirrelly thriller worth your time.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Published April 18, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

The only reason to see an Al Pacino movie these days is Al Pacino. And maybe that's not even a good enough reason. In Jon Avnet's listless, squirrelly and ultimately nonsensical thriller "88 Minutes" Pacino plays Jack Gramm, a star forensic psychiatrist and professor responsible for sending a man whom he believes to be a serial killer, John Forster (Neal McDonough), to the electric chair. On the day the sicko is scheduled to die, Gramm receives a mysterious call on his cellphone: He has 88 minutes to live. But trust me, it feels more like around 236.

Did I mention that even though the serial killer is supposedly in jail, a rash of murders, done exactly in his style, comes to light on the very day Gramm receives the mysterious call? So who, exactly, is trying to kill Gramm? Could it be one of his forensic-psychiatry students, such as the feisty, brainy west Texan Kim (Alicia Witt, a capable actress stuck in a dumb role)? Or Mike (Benjamin McKenzie, of "The OC"), the arrogant, know-it-all med student? Or bright, sweet Lauren (Leelee Sobieski), with her trustworthy milkmaid face? And what about the dean of the university where Gramm teaches, Carol (Deborah Kara Unger), who slouches through the movie with her hair in a harried-looking updo, wearing a coat that looks like a bathrobe?

At one time or another, Gramm eyes each of these figures with suspicion, and so does the camera: It never met a red herring it didn't like. As if that weren't enough, Gramm also has secrets, most notably a mystery involving his younger sister's death. There's always something going on in "88 Minutes" -- a cellphone ringing at just the right moment, a character interrupting to say, "Jack, I got ahold of so-and-so, and there's a problem," a comely young student stripping down to a filmy camisole for no particularly good reason (except the obvious one). The picture opens with an unpleasant capture-and-torture sequence involving -- get this -- two beautiful young Asian-American sisters. Twins, no less.

Avnet lays all this stuff out before us with a straight face -- the picture is humorless and witless. The barrage of allegedly important details is supposed to keep us intrigued, but it barely keeps us occupied. By the time we find out who the killer really is, we've entertained so many possibilities that one culprit is as good as another: Avnet and screenwriter Gary Scott Thompson (who wrote the B-movie joyride "The Fast and the Furious") try to stuff so much suspense into the corners that nothing in the movie has any weight or consequence.

Pacino, at least, takes it all in stride. He'll listen to some other character's inane dialogue and respond with an appropriately arched eyebrow or comically pop-eyed skepticism. And even when he's stuck with lousy dialogue -- in particular, a speech where he has to describe that painful family tragedy -- he takes the care needed to deliver it as if it matters. Pacino has gotten past the point where we have to assess every additional wrinkle or gray hair to decide whether or not he's aging well -- he's reached the age where he looks no-age, and it's a good place to be. He wanders through "88 Minutes" in a baggy suit that looks slept-in, but he's the only thing in it that's remotely awake.

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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