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With Volcano launching Hollywood’s longest, most extravagant, and, potentially, most imbecilic summer season ever, it’s hard not to feel supportive of offbeat efforts like Commandments, writer-director Daniel Taplitz’s theological comedy-drama. The movie deserves a few points for engaging ideas, albeit stale ones, and for taking chances by mixing disparate moods and tones. From the opening shot, Commandments is filled with unpredictable twists and turns, but its inanely affirmative climax is likely to leave viewers feeling duped and insulted.
The film begins with its protagonist, Seth Warner (Aidan Quinn), perched on the edge of a Manhattan rooftop howling angrily at God. Like Job, he has been tested to the max: His beautiful, pregnant wife has drowned, he’s been fired from his job as a community clinic physician, and his house has been demolished by a tornado. As Seth raises his voice to question divine justice, he’s zapped by a lightning bolt.
Surviving this disaster, he’s taken in by his warmhearted sister-in-law, lawyer Rachel Luce (Courteney Cox), and her sleazy tabloid journalist husband Harry (Anthony LaPaglia.) Recuperating in their commodious apartment, he decides to avenge himself on God by breaking all of the Ten Commandments. Some he defies with ease: taking the Lord’s name in vain on the altar of his family synagogue and carving an idol of the goddess Kali. Others, like the injunctions against adultery and murder, prove more difficult to violate.
Ironically, while the essentially decent but tormented Seth struggles to execute his program, Harry, a self-centered scumbag, cavalierly transgresses the Decalogue by cheating on his wife, worshipping Mammon (he’s obsessed with possessions like his expensive “fetal goatskin” jacket), and bowing to false idols (specifically, a guitar once played by Jeff Beck). Increasingly suspicious of and alienated from her husband, Rachel is drawn to Seth. (In the film’s most touching moment, she asks him, “Am I a commandment to be broken?”) Informed of an approaching hurricane, Seth compulsively returns to the Montauk shore where he lost his wife. After appearing to meet a similar fate in the churning sea, he is resurrected by a Biblical miracle that, if your memory of the aquatic portions of the Old Testament has not dimmed, should be fairly easy to guess.
Most viewers are likely to have exhausted their interest in Taplitz’s themereconciling the benevolence of God with a world filled with injustice and evilin college-dorm bull sessions, but the film’s intermittent touches of dark humor prevent it from becoming cloyingly earnest. What’s more damaging is its laborious pace. With so many intricate narrative convolutions and shifts from tragedy to comedy to romance, the screenplay lacks momentum. As a result, the 87-minute running time feels nearly twice as long, burdened by a thesis that never quite achieves dramatic exposition.
One can’t fault the cast for the film’s shortcomings. A sensitive and attractive actor, Quinn quietly embodies Seth’s fury, though buying him in a yarmulke requires considerable suspension of disbelief. His sole expressive weaknessmumbling dialogue, as though resistant to serving as a screenwriter’s mouthpieceworks to his advantage playing a man sapped of hope, and his hypnotically blue cyborg eyes (rivaled only by Meg Foster’s weird, green peepers) function as stained-glass windows to a troubled soul. Sporting Gloria Borger hair, Cox is fetchingly sympathetic as Rachel, and LaPaglia clearly enjoys himself as her swinish, materialistic husband. Polish cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, celebrated for his work with countrymen Kiéslowski, Wajda, and Zanussi, uses color filters, forced perspectives, and distorting lenses to create charged, slightly surreal images that sustain the film’s abstract, allegorical tone.
Making his theatrical feature debut after writing and directing cable movies for Showtime, HBO, and the USA network, Taplitz deserves kudos for attempting something original instead of reprocessing formulas. But like Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture, Commandments primarily appeals to the pious, who are generally too busy arguing among themselves, or trying to impose their views on others, to venture out to the neighborhood multiplex. Had Taplitz been truly courageous, at some point he might have followed Buñuel’s and Bergman’s examples by questioning the validity of the Judeo-Christian crapola that, for nearly 40 centuries, has distracted humanity from understanding itself and the universe.
Speaking of crapola, Volcano has finally erupted, and it’s every bit as crummy as you’ve heard, maybe worse. Of the rumored $100,000,000 budget, no more than $19.95 could have been spent on the screenplay by neophytes Jerome Armstrong and Billy Ray. (You’ve gotta cut corners somewhere.) This disaster movie’s natural menace, lava spewing from Los Angeles’ La Brea Tar Pits, is obstinately uncompelling; the bulk of the film’s putative thrills consists of shots of magma oozing lazily down Wilshire Boulevard, like overmicrowaved chili con queso in search of tortilla chips.
Surprisingly, the opening reels, usually the deadliest part of a disaster picture, contain Volcano’s most enjoyable moments. Director Mick Jackson’s crisply photographed, scene-setting glimpses of the city awakening are informed by the same sunny affection he brought to the 1991 Steve Martin comedy L.A. Story. After 30 minutes, though, the cheese starts to flow and the film melts into a puddle of clichés and murky images.
In big-budget “event movies,” the characters and performers are afterthoughts, minced jalapeños garnishing the special-effects nachos. Tommy Lee Jones bounds through his role as director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management, struggling to balance the fate of a megalopolis under siege with the welfare of his 13-year-old daughter (lovely Gaby Hoffmann). He spars, professionally and personally, with feisty seismologist Amy Barnes (Anne Heche), who dashes through the fiery muck braless under a tank top and punctuates her learned recitations of scientific data with ejaculations of “Oh, shit!” (A trim, albinoishbut prettierMeryl Streep, Heche is Ellen DeGeneres’ new significant other. If appearing in her first major lead role the same week as DeGeneres’ long-awaited coming-out episode airs doesn’t make her a star, nothing will.) The rest of the cast is limited to barking out orders and bursting into flames.
Jackson attempts to keep his audience awake by assaulting its ears with headachy surround-sound ambient noise. At times, I couldn’t tell whether the racket coming from the back of the Sony Pentagon City theater was part of the soundtrack or the mall itself being razed. I’m not totally immune to action-movie pyrotechnics; Speed made my pulse race, even while turning my brain to tapioca. But Volcano’s lumbering pace exposes its massive plot fissures and jumbled continuity, and its redemptive ending, which combines the implausibly contrived salvation of father and daughter along with a child and dog and culminates in a brief sermon on brotherhood, would make a nun guffaw.
Volcano ends with Los Angeles smoldering but undefeated. One wonders whether the Fox executives who green-lighted this fatuous project will be equally triumphant. The rainy Sunday matinee screening I attended was less than a quarter full, and exiting the theater, the audience seemed no more enthusiastic about the experience than I was. If Volcano turns out to be a commercially disastrous disaster movie and routs the dunderheads responsible for it, $100,000,000 will have been well spent.CP