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Not This Guy Again…

Poor Michael Douglas. He’s been busted for insider trading after being betrayed by his I-bank prot‚g‚. He’s been ruthlessly stalked by a woman scorned. He’s been manipulated by a sexy serial killer. He’s been sexually harassed by his female boss. And now? His daughter has been kidnapped. He just may be the most victimized white male in recent film history.

So why does he keep playing these roles? Well, why does Michael Jordan keep coming back to basketball? Because he loves it-and because he’s pretty darn good at it. Sure, Douglas has the occasional creative diversion, some good (Traffic, Wonder Boys) and some much less so (Shining Through, One Night at McCool’s). But the slick-professional-oblivious-to-any-world-but-his-own is home base for second-generation thespian.

This time around, the profession is child psychiatry and Dr. Nathan Conrad (Douglas) is a recognized expert, deftly moving through sessions with a connection to youth that Mr. Rogers himself would envy. Dr. Conrad lives in a posh Manhattan co-op (where else?) with a loving wife (Famke Janssen) and adorable daughter (Skye McCole Bartusiak). And yet, the bad guys (led by actor Sean Bean) succeed in drawing him out of his cocoon by taking his daughter away. The first act is somewhat like a Michael Douglas version of 1996’s Ransom, but the interesting twist here is that the kidnappers are not after what Dr. Conrad has, they are after what he can get for them.

In the mind of schizophrenic teen Elisabeth Burrows (Brittany Murphy) lies some very valuable information concerning a stolen diamond. Presumably, threats are not effective in extracting the information, so the idea is that a gentle approach will coax the information out. Voila! Enter Dr. Conrad. By now you have surely seen the commercial for the film ending with Burrows’ chilling (or comic) taunt of Dr. Conrad, “I’ll never tell.” Clearly, this is a sign that the doc has his work cut out for him.

The second act is a wonderful platform for Murphy to showcase her explosive acting style, with Douglas essentially taking a secondary role. One element I liked about Douglas as Dr. Conrad is the subtle change from his earlier film roles in that this time, he was an indirect victim. He was actually acting on behalf of someone other than himself. Unfortunately, that’s about as original as it gets for him. But as Douglas goes into cruise control during this part of the film, Murphy’s ability to hold a scene becomes that much more evident. I can only imagine that Hollywood will look to exploit her “steal-a-scene” talent. Watch out for her.

As for the supporting characters (Platt, Bartusiak, and Esposito), they perform their roles in a dutiful, but somewhat uninspiring manner. Admittedly, as a die-hard James Bond fan, it was wonderful to see Goldeneye villains Bean and Janssen on the big screen together again, but I thought the idea was to take better roles as time goes by (then again, for Janssen, how do you top Xenia Onatopp?).

The final act of the film is rather formulaic and flat. I was very disappointed at this, considering director Gary Fleder’s track record with this genre (Kiss the Girls, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead). The weakness of the final third of the film exposed some of the gaping holes in the movie’s plot, and the conventional ending did not help matters in the least.

In the final analysis, given that autumn is officially the season for thrillers (Se7en, Kiss the Girls, and Douglas’ The Game), you can’t say that you did not see Don’t Say a Word coming. The fact that it stars Michael Douglas is hardly a surprise. For goodness sakes, thirty minutes in we even know how it will end. So my question is, if “thrillers” continue their trajectory of predictability, how long will it be before we stop calling them thrillers? Chew on that for a while, Mr. Douglas. And next time, think Shakespeare.

October 9, 2001
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