Men use women. They cajole them, deceive them, abuse them, and—this is admittedly among the rarer occurrences—pretend to be dead and then frame them for their murders. It’s enough to make you spitting mad. It is not enough, however, to get much of a rise out of two bland new movies about nice women and the men who misuse them, Guinevere and Double Jeopardy.
From a distance, Guinevere might seem the more incisive of the two. It was written and directed by a woman, after all, and it’s not an action flick. But this account of a young woman’s affair with an aging, mildly exploitative bohemian photographer is too soft from its opening voice-over, in which Harper Sloane (Sarah Polley) recalls her relationship with Connie Fitzpatrick (Stephen Rea) as “my most cherished fuckup.” That comment may be intended to convey ambiguity, but in fact it rules it out. Writer-director Audrey Wells has said that she knew from the first that the film would have to be an indie project, yet she lugged her Hollywood screenwriting sensibility with her when she went over the wall. The result is something that’s no more trenchant than Wells’ last report from the battle of the sexes, The Truth About Cats and Dogs.
Harper meets Connie when he shows up to shoot her older sister’s wedding. Harper has just graduated, making the prospect of an affair with a 50-something serial seducer seem risky—until it’s revealed that it’s college, not high school, that Harper has recently completed. She’s expected to attend Harvard Law School in the fall—which downgrades her affair with Connie from statutory rape (his) to slumming (hers). Harper is shy and a little lost, yet she never seems quite the victim she’s supposed to be. Indeed, whenever the need arises—whether it’s rescuing Connie from some self-created crisis or putting her overbearing mother (Jean Smart) in her place—Harper proves herself entirely capable.
This is in part due to Polley’s performance. In such films as The Sweet Hereafter and Go, the actress has specialized in portraying young women of exceptional self-possession. Here she does her best to appear abashed, but she is mostly unconvincing. Her heart seems less in the role than in the electro-celestial warbles she contributed to the soundtrack.
Wells’ script is of little help. Harper is meant to be supremely innocent, unaware that an older man might want to undress her to photograph her (among other things)—and unable to imagine that he has done the same before with other women. Yet the first time Harper visits Connie’s San Francisco loft she meets an angered about-to-be-ex-protegee, so it doesn’t make any sense later when Harper is outraged to learn that she’s not the first of Connie’s nubile muses (all of whom he has called Guinevere in recognition of the fact they will someday leave him for a dashing young Lancelot).
As for Connie, he drinks too much, sometimes gets angry, and prefers not to hold a steady job, none of which makes him a shocking cad. Indeed, Connie is arguably creepier when he’s good than when he’s bad. After Harper returns from a strained 21st-birthday dinner with her uptight family, she finds that Connie has staged a raucous, ludicrously multiculti surprise party, complete with a jazz singer to scat “Happy Birthday.” Now that’s grounds for leaving your silly old lover, but instead shy, withdrawn Harper boogies delightedly.
Maybe that’s supposed to be ambiguous too, but, in fact, it’s merely self-congratulatory. Harper spurns her boho birthday cake and eats it too. Ultimately, the film fails not because it goes too easy on Connie, but because it’s utterly uncritical of Harper. (In the film’s final scene, she’s almost beatified.) That’s why Guinevere, rather than being a cherishable fuckup, is a negligible one.
One of the new generation of trailer-driven films, Double Jeopardy handles most of its plot—the part that frequent moviegoers have already seen extensively summarized in previews—in the first half-hour. For those who happen to have missed it, here’s the setup: Libby Parsons (Ashley Judd) lives a blissful upscale life on an island near Seattle with her husband, Nick (Bruce Greenwood), and their 5-year-old son, Matty. Although Nick’s business is shaky, he announces that he’s going to buy Libby a sailboat and takes her on an overnight cruise to try out the vessel. During the outing, Nick disappears, leaving a trail of blood and a mystified wife.
Libby is quickly convicted of Nick’s murder, perhaps because she’s represented by her husband’s attorney. She turns Matty over to family friend Angie (Annabeth Gish) and goes to serve her six-year sentence. A few months into the jail term, Angie and Matty stop visiting Libby; she tracks them down by phone, only to receive a powerful hint that Nick is still alive. A former attorney also serving time for killing her husband advises Libby that the double jeopardy provision of the U.S. Constitution means that she can’t be tried again for Nick’s murder. When she gets free, she can kill him without judicial consequences. (My legal advice: Check with a lawyer who hasn’t been disbarred before pursuing this strategy.)
The rest of our heroine’s sentence passes in a pumping-iron montage; when she’s released from prison, Libby is in another movie. The filmmakers are still calling it Double Jeopardy, but disinterested observers will recognize it as The Fugitive, complete with Tommy Lee Jones in hot pursuit. Jones plays burned-out parole officer Travis Lehman, who presides over Libby’s Seattle halfway house. She goes AWOL almost immediately, dumping Lehman (and his car) into Puget Sound. Using some unlikely but instantly successful ruses, Libby traces Angie, Nick, and Matty to Colorado and then on to New Orleans. Lehman follows to save his job and assuage his pride, but also because Libby needs an ally and Lehman is the only possibility that screenwriters David Weisberg and Douglas S. Cook have provided.
Like so many Hollywood movies with male protagonists, Double Jeopardy tells the story of an outsider in desperate straits with no one to turn to. Libby is all alone, although it’s not quite clear why she never asks for help. Why, for example, would someone in jail for murder not call her attorney when she gets a clue that the alleged corpse is still breathing? Has she come to suspect that her attorney conspired with her husband? If so, why not call another lawyer? Maybe Weisberg and Cook didn’t think of any of this, but the first part of the film is so elliptical that it seems likely that some of the answers to these questions disappeared during the final edit.
Not that the latter part makes any more sense. Once-promising Australian director Bruce Beresford choreographs the chase efficiently but doesn’t seem much concerned about the plot’s many absurdities. Of course, neither is the pretty and plucky but only mechanically motivated Libby. Like countless male predecessors, she really wants vengeance, not answers. This is the sort of film that substitutes action for character and locations for exposition; its principal moral dilemma is finding a way for Libby to destroy Nick without becoming unsympathetic. Other emotional concerns are reduced to a few quick tears Libby sheds before she reaches for the barbells. Double Jeopardy may imagine itself the story of a strong, resourceful woman, but it’s no chick flick. CP