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The collapse of the Hollywood studio system robbed us of one of the most enduring pleasures of American moviegoing—the character actor. Although many above-the-title romantic leads were photogenic stiffs—Robert Taylor, Lana Turner, Dana Andrews, Jeanne Crain—we could always count on supporting players to energize the margins of formulaic pictures. Merely recalling their names brings back a flood of happy memories: gruff, top-knotted Marjorie Main; wormy fall guy Elisha Cook Jr.; tart-tongued Thelma Ritter; prissy, officious Franklin Pangborn; fluttery, fruity-voiced Billie Burke; raspy, bloated Eugene Pallette; wisecracking Iris Adrian.

These days, character actors are an endangered species, but their spirit lives on in the person of William H. Macy. It would be difficult to name another contemporary performer who has created so many unforgettable secondary roles, among them Fargo’s felonious car salesman; Pleasantville’s bland, sitcom father; Happy, Texas’ moonstruck gay sheriff; and Magnolia’s tormented former quiz kid. Macy’s face, at once handsome and clownish, ideally suits him to play offbeat characters. His rumpled countenance—thick hair, broad forehead, large ears, feathery eyebrows, and watery eyes encased in creased sockets—marks him as an oddball American archetype, a hybrid of John F. Kennedy and Howdy Doody.

Macy ascends from supporting player to top billing in Panic, writer-director Henry Bromell’s absorbing but flawed portrait of a 40-ish Southern Californian in the grip of a midlife crisis. Soft-spoken Alex (Macy) has two professions—mail-order merchandising of lawn ornaments, kitchen appliances, and sexual aids, and killing people. It’s the second job, overseen by his dominating father, Michael (leonine Donald Sutherland), that’s pushed Alex to the breaking point. As the movie opens, he inquires of his new shrink (pie-faced, darkly bearded John Ritter), “Do you ever get the feeling that you’re dead?”

Although weary of the family business, Alex lacks the courage to confront Michael directly. When he runs the idea of quitting past his mother, Deidre (pencil-thin Barbara Bain, formerly Cinnamon on television’s Mission: Impossible), she rejects it out of hand, ascribing his malaise to insufficient sexual gratification from his wife, Martha (Tracey Ullman, underused in a thankless something-is-wrong-with-our-marriage role), who doesn’t know that he’s a paid assassin. Alex’s sole source of comfort is his adoring 6-year-old son, Sammy (cute but not cloying David Dorfman), with whom he engages in bedtime colloquies about God and infinity.

In his shrink’s waiting room, Alex encounters 23-year-old hairdresser Sarah (Neve Campbell), a neurotic, bisexual beauty with whom he soon becomes obsessed. Blunt and reckless, she holds the promise of release from his emotional paralysis. But this liberation proves impossible when Alex receives an assignment from Michael that he refuses to carry out—and learns that the old man is secretly starting to train Sammy to become the family’s third-generation hit man.

Making his feature debut, Bromell exhibits impressive directorial command, drawing uniformly strong performances from his cast. He stages his dark narrative in ironically sunny settings, translating the elements of film noir into a film blanc. (Alex is frequently photographed against impersonal modernist architecture, which mirrors his numbed emotions.) But, in his screenplay, Bromell, whose previous credits include publishing award-winning fiction and writing television scripts for Northern Exposure, Homicide: Life on the Street, and Chicago Hope, coyly withholds information that would make his characters’ plights more compelling. It would be helpful to know how Michael became involved in the execution business and why Alex has never felt any qualms about killing people before reaching middle age. Several smoothly interwoven flashbacks offer clues but fail to provide satisfying answers to these questions. Alex’s metaphysical dialogues with Sammy are excessively literary, and Panic’s explosive climax and muted coda smack of contrivance, neatly and glibly resolving the film’s complexities.

A peculiar conflation of the comic Analyze This and the grimly Oedipal Affliction, Panic, despite its shortcomings, offers further evidence that independent film has become the fount of whatever energy and imagination remain in American cinema. It also suggests that elevating the invaluable supporting player Macy to starring roles might not be such a hot idea. Although it’s hard to imagine any actor improving on his performance as Alex, transforming Macy into a leading man straitjackets his special genius for creating scene-stealing secondary characters. Like the saffron in paella, he’s most valuable as the rare seasoning that transforms the common ingredients of filmmaking into something savory. CP