Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Palmetto Movie Review:

First published in The Connecticut College Voice on 27 February 1998.
Republished here with minor editorial adjustments that do not affect content.

Take two Academy Award nominated actors (Woody Harrelson, Elisabeth Shue) and Volker Schlöndorff, the critically acclaimed director of The Tin Drum and a comedic film noir script and you get the workings of what might be the first really good movie of 1998. Right? Wrong! What we end up with instead is a contrived, poorly scripted, badly conceived attempt at film noir. Not that it is a result of the people involved, but given the talent coming together on this project, Palmetto should have been much better.


Harrelson plays Harry Barber, an ex-reporter and ex-con just released from prison on a bum charge. He goes back to Palmetto, the place that ruined him, with his old lady-friend Nina (Gina Gershon). It is there, on his first day out, sitting in a bar with the drink he ordered (but he doesn’t drink, isn’t that quirky?) that he first meets Rhea Malroux (Shue), the wife of the wealthy and dying Felix Malroux. She has a business proposition for him. Later they meet in a beach bungalow in a seductive tryst that plays like a cheap scene in a late-night made for cable movie. But that’s part of the joke, it’s camp film noir. She offers him $50,000 to help with the staged kidnapping of her stepdaughter (Felix’s daughter). She needs him to be the “threatening voice on the phone.” Of course, the stepdaughter, Odette (Chloe Sevigny), will be perfectly safe in a hotel hundreds of miles away.

The best parts of the film involve Harrelson, his acting is incredibly solid and you truly believe that his character, looking for payback against destiny for the two years he wasted in prison, would accept this deal. Harry Barber is clearly a dim-witted fool, destined to lose, and the best part is that he knows it. He just doesn’t know enough to stay away from the dubious Mrs. Malroux, over whom he nearly drools and does all but hang his tongue out of his mouth. Once involved in the scheme, the Assistant District Attorney finds out about the “kidnapping.” Harry is called down to the office all the while wondering if they know he is involved. The way Harrelson’s facial expression changes from sweating dread to relief when they tell him that the reason they called him down is because they want him to be the press agent on the matter is remarkable.

On the other hand, Shue’s acting is something not to be wholly admired.  I wonder if her performance in Leaving Las Vegas was a fluke given the other mediocre performances she has given since then. She doesn’t play well as the femme fatale, nor does Gina Gershon fit the role of the passive girlfriend. The two actresses seem to have traded places, each taking the other’s typecast role, and in this case it does not work. When Nina learns of Harry’s sexual affairs with Rhea, she is broken. However, she barely bats an eyelash at the sight of a dead body in the trunk of her car that Harry put there. At least you understand why he put it there and believe that he would have. And in a role not at all suited for his ability; Michael Rapaport as Felix Malroux’s bodyguard who has an unusual way of getting rid of bodies. He uses a chemical that is all too reminiscent of “dip” from Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Unfortunately, the film takes far too many plot turns to keep the audience focused. Harry discovers that Rhea is actually setting him up, and has planned to since before they met. He makes a multitude of other discoveries which turn the plot toward a completely different direction. The ending contains the typical thriller convention of the bad guy revealing what his/her motivation was, how he/she did this. This is a cop-out ending used mostly in the horror genre to quickly wrap up the loose ends. Rather than working the motivation into the narrative, which might be a more innovative and clever way of explaining it, we have to have it beaten over our heads. The script is not completely tight either, we are still left with some loose ends including the witness who Harry had to hit over the head so he wouldn’t ruin the plan. The witness was able to perfectly describe Harry’s physical appearance, despite the fact that he obviously caught no glimpse of Harry as he was hit on the head. Did the bad guys pay the witness off to give a perfectly accurate description of Harry? Was he working for them? These are questions I should not be asking myself at the end of a movie.

At least it appears the writers realized that film noir is getting played out, overdone, overused, etc. so they attempted to make the movie as a camp style film noir.  It falters because the jokes come too seldom, and when they do you’re not even sure if they are jokes. Perhaps with so many twists in the plot, they couldn’t keep the humor straight.

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