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Who is that attractive woman who keeps changing her name and her look? Who is that anonymous guy following her? For that matter, who are you?
All potentially interesting questions, and ones that—on screen, at least—don’t necessarily require definitive answers. Such acid-era films as Last Year at Marienbad and Performance provocatively fragmented time, space, and personality, and then defiantly refused to put them back together in the manner once required of thrillers (The Big Sleep excepted, of course). Eye of the Beholder helps itself to narrative and structural liberties introduced in the ’60s, but it doesn’t know what to do with them. The film’s not a conundrum; it’s just a mess.
Adapted from Marc Behm’s novel by writer-director Stephan Elliott, Eye of the Beholder is essentially a two-hander. The Eye (Ewan McGregor) is a quiet, mild-mannered British spy who’s assigned to a personal matter: tracking a top official’s son, who’s been embezzling money. He quickly finds the young man, who brings the money to a mystery woman (Ashley Judd). As Eye watches, the woman hacks the guy to pieces with a knife and disposes of the body. Rather than intervene or even make a report, Eye simply follows the woman, who uses many guises but is actually named Joanna. Eye is transfixed by her and feels the need to protect her. Perhaps he likes the way she handles a knife.
To be fair to Eye, he’s instructed to help Joanna. But he can’t really explain that to his handler (k.d. lang), because the instructions come from an annoying hallucination who represents what Eye thinks his long-lost daughter Lucy looks like. Although there’s an element of the erotic in Eye’s fascination with Joanna, she’s also in some way a surrogate daughter. Eventually, Eye tracks down Joanna’s former shrink (Genevieve Bujold), who shaped her patient in bizarre—and utterly implausible—ways. The spy might have been better served, however, by finding a therapist of his own.
The story begins in Washington, D.C., where Eye works out of the “British Consulate.” (Tip to the Sydney-based Elliott, who’s best known for directing The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: Major world capitals have embassies, not consulates.) From there Eye follows Joanna to Pittsburgh, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Alaska. Elliott tries to establish these places with such props as flags and souvenir snowdomes (which he just happens to collect), but the film’s low-rent travelogue quickly reveals itself as a con: The whole thing was shot in Quebec, and even the occasional insert shots of American locations look phony.
The film has an elaborate visual scheme. There’s much statuary of winged creatures to hint that Eye is Joanna’s guardian angel, and anachronistic locations and decor (including some vintage rail equipment) clash with Marius de Vries’ contemporary techno score to suggest that the story is somehow taking place outside ordinary time. All that these time-shifting backdrops really convey, however, is a limited budget. Too bland and too silly to work as a thriller, Eye of the Beholder is also too ugly to pass as a piece of glamorous mystification. (Judd and McGregor are shot in such harsh light that they would hardly be taken for sex symbols by anyone who’s not seen them on screen before. One more tip for Elliott: If you can’t make an erotically charged thriller coherent, at least make it beautiful.)
It’s clear from Play It to the Bone that Ron Shelton has a lot of friends. But a testosterone-pumping flick this tiresome isn’t going to make him any new ones.
The movie’s setup is familiar Shelton; it recycles themes, characters, and developments from Bull Durham, Blaze, White Men Can’t Jump, and Tin Cup, many of whose stars return, at least for cameos. What’s lacking is the wit and poise that those predecessors provided, at least intermittently. Although Shelton apparently means to be playful, Play It to the Bone is often as glum—and sometimes even as hateful—as Cobb, the writer-director’s most unpleasant film.
L.A. boxers Cesar (Antonio Banderas) and Vince (White Men’s Woody Harrelson) are good friends but also professional rivals, enlisted at the last minute for a match to precede a Mike Tyson fight in Las Vegas. Although they have less than a day to make it to Vegas, where their reputation as over-the-hill losers just might be amended, they decide to drive the distance with Grace (Blaze’s Lolita Davidovich), the gutsy if slightly flaky would-be businesswoman who is Cesar’s girlfriend and Vince’s ex. Grace is the muse, a familiar Shelton character, and Cesar and Woody are the idiot savants who just might conquer their bluster and provincialism and become great athletes touched by, well, grace.
What happens next? A long drive. The two-guys-one-dame-and-a-car scenario is so minimal that the film feels—though it doesn’t look—like the product of a 20-something director who just saw Breathless for the first time. Shelton attempts to break the monotony with a few rote flashbacks to Cesar’s and Vince’s most conspicuous failures in the ring, but mostly the three just chat. At some point, the director must have realized how dull this would be, because he decided to juice the conversation with sex. Cesar admits that, during one crisis of confidence, he became a “fag”—a revelation that doesn’t go anywhere, but won’t go away, either. Then the three pick up hitchhiking Lia (Lucy Liu), a druggie-slut stock character who screws Vince before Grace banishes her. All the while, the recently born-again Vince is being visited by a Sunday-school Jesus.
Once the trio arrives in Vegas, Shelton summons his pals, including Bull Durham and Tin Cup’s Kevin Costner, White Men’s Wesley Snipes, George Foreman, Rod Stewart, Tony Curtis, Drew Carey, Gennifer Flowers, and Internet pinup queen Patricia Ford. Also Robert Wagner, Tom Sizemore, and Richard Masur, who have actual parts, albeit negligible ones, as sleazy boxing promoters. When the fight begins, the blood flows copiously, Jesus continues to appear, the woozy Vince starts seeing the silicone-enhanced ring girls topless, and the punch-drunk Cesar—I could not make this up—has a vision of a comely butt.
The two friends keep battering each other, apparently to prove that taking 10 rounds of pointless punishment is somehow ennobling. But anyone who sits through this movie will recognize the absurdity of that bloody-male-romantic notion. Play It to the Bone is 124 minutes of pointless punishment, and it’s not remotely ennobling. CP