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High Crimes is just what it sounds like, except that it isn’t: a trite genre piece—tense military-court procedural plus action thriller—with the publicity bonus of reuniting Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman for the first time since Kiss the Girls. But forgettable title, Judd’s inability to read lines, and all, High Crimes also provides the rip-roaring good time you keep trying to have at movies like this but never do.
Judd plays high-powered San Francisco attorney Claire Kubik, who’s married to sweet, gentle contractor Tom (Jim Caviezel). Their affluent perfection is just begging to be shattered, and it is, but in a chain of events so bizarre and baffling that it’s unsettlingly convincing. Tom is shanghaied back to his past as a covert military operative and held prisoner on a Marine base, where he is to be put on trial for the slaughter of nine civilians in a Salvadoran village many years before. After taking one look at the Doogie Howser-ish military lawyer assigned to her husband’s case, Claire signs up to defend him and recruits alcoholic “wild card” Charlie Grimes (Freeman), who has reasons of his own for wanting to take on the Marines.
The film is Claire’s trip through the hell that is the military justice system, a distorted netherworld of near-parallels to the civilian version she has so smoothly manipulated, and Grimes is her weary Virgil. The writers, Yuri Zeltser and Cary Bickley, have culled the most telling and inhuman details—as well as the broadest strokes of plot—from Joseph Finder’s novel, so they sound as if they know their stuff, and they also make sure to plant a series of pungent jokes along the way. Judd, tremendously beautiful here, can’t deliver dialogue worth a damn, but her face is a wonder of shifting emotion and limpid response, and Adam Scott as the baby lawyer, Lt. Embry (inevitably called “Embryo”), is a funny, bewildered marvel. Freeman’s effortless grace and gravity tie the cast together—even pouty matchstick Amanda Peet is good as Claire’s sister, Jackie—so that the little band of travelers have a genuine camaraderie as they negotiate the twisty plot of coverups and lies. Told with confident forthrightness by Carl Franklin (One False Move, Devil in a Blue Dress), the story is cheesily compelling—but also affecting, exciting, and painful in ways artier, smugger films can’t always be.
Danny DeVito’s much-anticipated dark comedy Death to Smoochy, by contrast, is dull, shapeless, and forgettable—despite featuring a funny, unmined subject that promises to be treated with unforgiving black humor. Thanks to Adam Resnick’s lousy script and DeVito’s pointlessly fancy, clueless direction, the likable story ambles distractedly toward its predictable ending, its so-called satire vague and limp.
It couldn’t have been easy making such a pallid soup out of a great idea—a scathing look behind the scenes at the cutthroat hypocrisies of children’s television. Curiously ’70s-ish kiddie-show ringleader Rainbow Randolph (Robin Williams) is caught in a sting and revealed to be taking bribes from parents who hope he’ll put their little Cody or Dakota front and center for the camera. Although the uninteresting crime hardly touches on the possibilities raised by the rather interesting song—fraught with innuendo and psychosexual oddments—that Randolph sings on his show with a regiment of fawning little people as backup, the host is duly terminated. As he spirals toward rock bottom, collar-tugging Kidnet sycophant M. Frank Stokes (Jon Stewart, fated to be misused in cheap movies) and hard-as-nails lady executive Nora Wells (Catherine Keener, who inhabits this woeful cliche with her customary slashing verve) scramble for a new host whose ethics must squeak with cleanliness, regardless of his talent.
They eventually find Smoochy the Rhino (Ed Norton, marvelous as usual, and maybe more so) giving his all in a gig at a Coney Island methadone clinic. Smoochy, known on his tax form as Sheldon Mopes, is an idealistic suit stuffer who hopes to change the world, one soy dog and alfalfa-juice shooter at a time. His unselfish gullibility makes him a prime chump for the manipulative network; worse, integrity has turned his head. Whatever natural cynicism would have helped Sheldon see right through the industry string-pullers’ newly minted devotion to high morals is undermined by his humorless earnestness.
Meanwhile, Randolph spins elaborate revenge against the wide-eyed usurper, DeVito plays Sheldon’s swaggering agent, and the intrusion of lovable Irish mobsters adds more smugness and berserk Hollywood morality to the mix. Williams is no less excruciating than usual, and his comic villain role allows him to indulge his most irritating schtick: the funny accents, the harassed doublespeak, the soul-obliterating noisiness of the needy love-leech.
A plot turn engineered by Randolph betrays the audience’s goodwill in a most impossible, melodramatic way (DeVito is not a master of controlling tone), and Resnick’s script is chockablock with cheap expediencies. Worst of all, the film’s premise promises that we as a thoroughly annoyed culture will finally get our revenge against the various Day-Glo felt nightmares who’ve been brainwashing this country’s children for ages—but instead makes the gentle magenta beast into a hero. Way to provoke catharsis, fellas. CP