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Warner Bros. calls Devil’s Advocate a “supernatural thriller,” but it’s actually something much more agreeable. A film that imagines all of humanity teetering on the brink of damnation would be a supernatural thriller; one that imagines the hero of a John Grisham novel teetering on the brink of damnation, however, is a comedy. There are lines in Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy’s surprisingly sharp script (from Andrew Neiderman’s novel) that predictably curse all lawyers, but the movie is much more entertaining if seen as Rosemary’s Baby meets The Firm.
A smooth north-Florida defense attorney of almost clairvoyant intuition, Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves with a Matthew McConaughey drawl) is introduced while experiencing a twinge of conscience: He’s defending a teacher he has just realized is guilty of sexually abusing a student (Welcome to the Dollhouse’s Heather Matarazzo). Kevin asks for a recess, steels himself, and then returns to the courtroom to demolish the young accuser. This success sustains Kevin’s perfect no-loss record and draws the attention of a New York law firm. Soon the young attorney and his wife Mary Ann (Charlize Theron in the Ashley Judd role) are headed for Manhattan, ignoring the warnings of Kevin’s mother (Judith Ivey), who belongs to the sweetest little racially integrated fundamentalist church in the whole Bible Belt.
Working for a superconnected international law firm is more fun than Kevin could have imagined, and he’s clearly the pet of the senior partner, John Milton (Al Pacino, playing a character named after the poet who gave Satan one of his best pre-Devil’s Advocate roles). Mary Ann, however, soon gets the creeps. She starts glimpsing various associates of Milton’s as demons and has a vision of a curse on her childbearing ability. Her mother-in-law also has well-founded apprehensions, but Kevin sees his new boss only as cocky, suave, and sexually promiscuous. Kevin is, of course, wrong.
This 130-minute film was crisply directed by Taylor Hackford, whose ’80s box-office hits (An Officer and a Gentleman, Against All Odds) were not distinguished by their ingratiating wit. Hackford neatly uses locations both fantastic (like the perilous balcony of Milton’s office) and stranger than fiction (Donald Trump’s baroque apartment) to portray the gateway to Hell as the most exclusive of real estate. He also makes ironic use of upscale Manhattan fauna, depicting the (real) Al D’Amato and Don King as Milton’s pals. The suggestion of cosmic corruption is so strong that the film’s occasional forays into special-effects demonhood are merely literal-minded distractions.
This is one of Reeves’ more credible performances, although he’s doing nothing more than playing on the cluelessness that has been his principal attribute since the Bill and Ted days. The essential setup—lusty older hedonist shows a naive young man how to have high-rolling fun—reprises the premise of Scent of a Woman, but this time Pacino has an excuse for his flamboyant mugging: He’s the devil, after all. (He’s also offering a jaunty challenge to Robert De Niro’s Devilish turn in Angel Heart.) Milton is apparently all-knowing—or at least impressively multilingual—but what he offers Kevin is not Faustian knowledge but entrance into a sort of supernatural Playboy Club.
Like the overobvious demons, the film’s sexual politics are a little musty. All the attractive women (including the firm’s imperious Italian superlawyer) are essentially the devil’s playthings, and each of the young actresses with a speaking part is required to disrobe. (This may be one reason Milton’s plan for world domination has stalled; the old lecher hasn’t adapted to the new social order.) But then Lemkin and Gilroy could hardly offer a playful update of Luciferian mischief without enlisting the traditional notions of a wanton devil. Indeed, the best gags—from Milton’s playful feint at sticking his finger into holy water to his impeccably tossed-off “whatever”—require a grounding in Satanic lore.
The equation of defense lawyers with devils is glib, of course, but the dialogue rarely disappoints; it holds its own even during the special effects-heavy sequence that seems to be the movie’s finale. Actually, there’s yet another twist ending to come, one that gives Milton a chance to repeat a line that doesn’t apply just to lawyers: “Vanity. It’s definitely my favorite sin.” This is a piquantly ironic line coming from a ham like Pacino, but it resonates beyond Hollywood. Why else would Sen. D’Amato, a politician with a significant Catholic constituency, consent to portray himself as a man with sympathy for the devil?
Originally, a cartoon was a preliminary sketch, but under the influence of Warner Bros. and Disney the term has come to refer most frequently to an animated humorous short, usually featuring funny animals. Now in its 20th year, “Spike and Mike’s Festival of Animation” has successfully opened up that notion. The fest’s latest edition opens with an animated humorous short featuring a funny animal—a bugged bunny, no less—but that form doesn’t dominate. According to this compendium, animation today is heavy on stop-action and light on humor.
Perhaps because so few of these entries are particularly funny, Spike & Mike (actually, only Spike remains) reprise A Close Shave, one of British clay-master Nick Park’s Wallace & Gromit adventures. This Oscar-winning tale of the pair’s entanglement with contemporary sheep rustlers is engaging but well exposed, having run for weeks at the Biograph. (It comes at the end of the selection, so the over-Gromited can easily skip it.) The other gag-oriented films tend to be one-liners: a boy and his pet dead dog (Brian McPhail’s Stiffy), beer-drinking Aussie flies (Greg Holfeld’s Barflies), an opera-loving ostrich (Thor Freudenthal’s The Tenor), a migrating bird who gets so lost it affects the credits (Iouriy Tcherenkov’s The Great Migration), a chess game whose violence is more than symbolic (John Wardlaw and Michael Wilcox’s Chessmaster Theatre), and a train watcher who has difficulty apprehending his prey (Jeff Newitt’s Trainspotter).
There are also two musical numbers, Mike Johnson’s meticulously rendered The Devil Went Down to Georgia and Steven Fonti’s Political Correction. The former features dancing chickens and a Les Claypool vocal, while the latter is a Schoolhouse Rock parody that teaches us to call dogs “canine-Americans.”
The most striking pieces, however, could hardly be farther from the realm of Bugs and Mickey. Stephen Arthur’s Touched Alive briefly brings to life canvases by Canadian painter Jack Shadbolt, and Karen Kelly’s Stressed portrays the bustle of an inner-city neighborhood in loose pencil sketches that are both rough and remarkably fluid. There’s no punch line, but Kelly’s short film intriguingly brings the meaning of cartoon full circle.CP