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The first hour of Primal Fear, director Gregory Hoblit’s legal thriller, is so intelligent and sleekly crafted that I found myself wondering whether Hollywood had undergone a deathbed brain transplant. Fat chance. The second half dissolves into a puddle of fatuousness, capped by a stupefying “surprise” ending, the kind that leaves you wanting to smash the box-office window on the way out of the theater.

Steve Shagan and Ann Biderman’s screenplay, based on a William Diehl novel, addresses an issue of considerable topical interest: the moral responsibility of defense attorneys. Martin Vail (Richard Gere), a brilliant, arrogant, publicity-seeking Chicago criminal lawyer, volunteers to represent the defendant in a case that appears to be a slam dunk for the prosecution. A beloved Catholic archbishop (Stanley Anderson) is found brutally slaughtered. Near the scene of the crime, police capture Aaron Stampler (riveting newcomer Edward Norton), a hapless, stammering ex–altar boy spattered with the victim’s blood. Vail, who neither asks nor cares about the guilt of his clients, gradually comes to believe in Aaron’s innocence. His efforts on the young man’s behalf are complicated by the fact that he is the mentor and former lover of the trial’s feisty prosecuting attorney, Janet Venable (Laura Linney, less effective here than as the warmhearted ingénue of the PBS miniseries Tales of the City.)

Like Johnnie Cochran and Leslie Abramson, Vail cares less about uncovering truth than creating the illusion of truth. He’s accused of being “worse than the fuckin’ thugs you represent.” Awakening from the heavy-lidded slumber of his recent appearances in Final Analysis, Mr. Jones, and Intersection, Gere turns in a wry, debonair performance; he hasn’t been this charismatic since his career-rejuvenating turn in Internal Affairs. A veteran of television’s Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue, Hoblit, making his first theatrical feature, keeps things moving at a brisk clip, seamlessly integrating complex exposition, crisp dialogue, and atmospheric shots of Chicago, which are peerlessly rendered by master cameraman Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull). Until the screenplay goes gaga, Primal Fear is a model of no-nonsense filmmaking, always a jump or two ahead of its audience.

Without revealing too much of the plot’s resolution—if I did, you wouldn’t believe me anyway—Primal Fear begins to collapse when one of its characters suddenly develops multiple-personality disorder. Although Hoblit deftly compresses obligatory courtroom procedures—he speeds things up by intercutting snippets of the prosecution and defense’s opening statements—no amount of directorial finesse could compensate for the denouement’s preposterous zingers, which sell out the screenplay’s ostensible support for professional women and unpopular legal advocacy. The film shows unusual restraint in eschewing gratuitous gore and hyped-up action sequences, sports a spare, composed musical score instead of a collection of intrusive pop singles, and features an ensemble of gifted, if underused, supporting players including John Mahoney, Alfre Woodard, Frances McDormand, and Steven Bauer. But it’s doomed by a climax so inanely contrived that the actors have trouble remaining poker-faced. Primal Fear, the story of a man who sets out to convince a jury that “good people do bad things,” ends up as yet another example of smart people making dumb movies.

Director Paul Mazursky’s career has been one long toboggan ride from the heights of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Alex in Wonderland, and Harry and Tonto, through wan homages to Truffaut (Willie and Phil), Renoir (Down and Out in Beverly Hills), and Shakespeare (Tempest), and into the witless abyss of Moon Over Parador, Scenes From a Mall, and The Pickle. Faithful, a comedy-drama adapted by actor-writer Chazz Palminteri from his own stage play, is unlikely to break the filmmaker’s recent string of commercial and critical flops, but it’s marginally better than his last few efforts. Please do not mistake this for an endorsement.

This sour, claustrophobic three-hander stars Cher as Margaret, a wealthy, depressed Westchester housewife who, on her 20th wedding anniversary, returns home from a shopping trip to discover Tony (Palminteri), a hit man who has been hired by her errant husband, Jack (Ryan O’Neal) to rub her out. For the first hour, Tony and Margaret (bound to a chair) spar over a variety of subjects, among them love, sex, fidelity, guilt, peanut butter, psychotherapy, and blowjobs, while awaiting the phone call from Jack that will trigger the murder. Then Jack unexpectedly arrives, unleashing another torrent of acrimonious verbiage. By the predictable fadeout, all three characters get their just deserts.

Chamber plays like this one are more at home in a small playhouse or, better, on radio, though Palminteri’s salty dialogue would hardly pass broadcast standards. Mazursky makes little effort to open up the talky screenplay; like Sleuth and Deathtrap, Faithful is the screen equivalent of cabin fever. (Someone should have reminded Mazursky of Robert Bresson’s observation that there can be “no marriage of theater and cinematography without both being exterminated.”)

What limited success such a misconceived venture can hope for depends on its cast. Although cosmetic surgery has rendered portions of her face immobile, Cher comes off best as the despondent, tranquilized Margaret, wavering between a death wish and the impulse to revitalize herself. Competently, if hardly memorably, she manages the frequent shifts from pathos to comedy, though it strains credulity to accept this tough cookie as a victim. Palminteri has clearly designed his role—an Italian mobster whose tough veneer conceals a core of tenderness and guilt—as a personal showcase but, like Nathan Lane in The Birdcage, he never reaches beyond obvious acting choices. His Tony is a workmanlike but monotonous performance, lacking nuance and surprise. Poor O’Neal, who never could act and has now lost his looks, resembles a businessman in midlife crisis but is pretty clueless about how to impersonate one. Mazursky, hammily unable to resist playing cameo roles in his projects, stalls what little momentum the movie achieves with his intrusive, woebegone appearances as Tony’s gambling-addict telephonic shrink.

If Palminteri’s plot weren’t so derivative—previous versions range from recent efforts like The Ref and Bulletproof Heart to Dial M for Murder, Sorry Wrong Number, and Jacques Doinel-Valcroze’s witty, long-forgotten Le Viol—Faithful might seem less lugubrious. Apart from an elaborate opening helicopter shot and some initial establishing footage, Mazursky fails to come up with any effective formal compensations for the screenplay’s stasis. Fred Murphy’s cool-toned camerawork casts a ghostly chill over Margaret and Jack’s luxurious, open-plan mansion, and Phillip Johnston’s musical score leans heavily on vintage Sarah Vaughan, Nat Cole, and Dinah Washington recordings to evoke emotions Mazursky seems otherwise incapable of engendering. (Bresson again: “People flood a film with music. They are preventing us from seeing that there is nothing in those images.”)

With its stale jokes and banal observations about marital fidelity—Howard Stern’s daily accounts of the rewards and horrors of monogamy are far more edifying than anything in Palminteri’s screenplay—Faithful isn’t a fraction as clever as it supposes. By the film’s climax, when Tony tells the squabbling couple, “The way I feel right now, I wanna kill both of you for nothing,” most viewers will share his exasperation.CP