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It’s not unreasonable to expect a movie featuring leading players whose ages average over 50 to appeal to more mature audiences than the crowds flocking to X-Men and Scary Movie. But in Hollywood, reason flies out the window on Memorial Day and doesn’t return until the leaves begin to fall. Even slow-witted middle-schoolers will guffaw at What Lies Beneath, a vacuous supernatural thriller.
After hitting the jackpot with the inane Forrest Gump, director Robert Zemeckis could no doubt find backing for any project he proposed. Inexplicably, he’s chosen a Gumpian original screenplay by Clark Gregg, based on a story by Gregg and Sarah Kernochan. Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer star as Norman and Claire Spencer, an ostensibly happy married couple living in a renovated dream house on the edge of a Vermont lake. He’s a geneticist trying to emerge from the shadow of his late scientist-father. She’s a cellist who has abandoned her career to nurture her ambitious second husband and her daughter from a previous marriage.
The opening sequence, in which Claire experiences a spooky premonition in the bathtub, informs us that there’s something sinister lurking beneath the placid surface of the couple’s New England paradise. After sending her daughter off to college, Claire is troubled by cries of passion and pain emanating from the ramshackle house next door, newly occupied by one of Norman’s academic colleagues and his young wife. Simultaneously, she becomes aware of a weird presence haunting her own home. Doors open and close of their own accord; framed pictures topple to the floor and shatter.
Preoccupied by his research, Norman dismisses Claire’s suspicions as an anxious response to her daughter’s departure compounded by aftershocks from an automobile accident that occurred the previous year. He sends her to a skeptical psychiatrist (Joe Morton) whose therapy largely consists of offering her cinnamon candies. Unsatisfied with his help, Claire enlists her New Age divorcee friend Jody (Diana Scarwid) to assist her in communicating with the poltergeist via a Ouija board. Amateur sleuthing leads her to discover that, at the time of her accident, Norman was having an affair with Madison Frank (Amber Valletta), a young graduate student who has since disappeared. Claire concludes that Madison’s ghost has returned to avenge herself on the couple. The more she learns about the missing girl, the more fearful she becomes for her own survival.
Screenwriter Gregg has never met an Alfred Hitchcock plot he could resist plundering. His favorites include Rear Window (a couple obsessed with the activities of a mysterious neighbor), Psycho (murderous doings in a bathroom), Vertigo (a revelation triggered by a necklace), and Suspicion (a wife terrorized by the growing fear that her husband might be trying to kill her). After a leisurely, often sluggish first hour, these plagiarisms lead to a series of contrived surprises and violent confrontations. Hitchcock always took pains to misdirect his audience by subtly concealing crucial plot points and devising distracting MacGuffins. Gregg plants his clues with the finesse of a drunken gardener. A laboratory demonstration of a recently invented short-term anaesthetic and a discussion about the reception range of a cell phone are so clumsily introduced that we impatiently await the contributions they will make to the story’s denouement.
Like most contemporary chillers, What Lies Beneath contemptuously insults the viewer’s intelligence. One leaves the theater feeling duped and mugged. But what’s most unconscionable about this lame-brained movie is the damage it will likely inflict on its appealing stars’ faltering careers.
In The Fabulous Baker Boys, The Russia House, Batman Returns, and especially Love Field, Pfeiffer displayed versatility and sensitivity rarely found in any performer. But lately she’s been involved in a run of unworthy projects: To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday, A Thousand Acres, The Deep End of the Ocean, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the dire Story of Us. Although Pfeiffer does everything in her considerable power to make Claire’s behavior seem plausible, the character reacts so moronically to dangerous situations that the actress can barely mask her disbelief. Despite frequently unflattering photography and the excessive dieting that has sapped her radiance, Pfeiffer still possesses one of the screen’s most exquisite faces. But at 43, an age at which the adolescent-
male mentality governing Hollywood consigns actresses to the bullpen, she hardly needs to be saddled with an unplayable role.
In his younger days, Ford could run for cover from a flop by signing on for more action pictures. Following the belly-up of the misbegotten Regarding Henry, he recouped with Patriot Games and The Fugitive. But at 58, he’s getting a bit long in the tooth for all that physical stuff. Ford hasn’t had a solid hit since 1997’s Air Force One. His other recent efforts have all been misfires: Sabrina, The Devil’s Own, Six Days Seven Nights, and Random Hearts. Should What Lies Beneath tank, as it certainly deserves to, Ford will have to do some scratching to come up with another successful picture.
Still, Pfeiffer and Ford must shoulder the blame for agreeing to participate in such a fatuous enterprise. Assuming that they read the screenplay, they should have been shrewd enough to realize what they were letting themselves in for. Surely, they must have spotted the cheesy plot holes and incongruities. Why is the opening third of the movie devoted to the next-door-neighbor plot, which is subsequently abandoned? Why does Jody, Claire’s trusted confidante, vanish after spilling the beans about her imperiled friend’s husband’s infidelity? And why does Cooper, the family dog, disappear for more than half the movie’s bloated running time? Could it be that he’s the only cast member with sense enough to abandon a sinking ship? CP