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Courting Disaster

At the beginning of Primal Fear, an alleged courtroom thriller, defense attorney Martin Vail, portrayed by Richard Gere, is unctuous, facile. In conversations with a journalist (Jack Connerman) whose sole purpose in the script is to serve as an excuse for a flood of exposition, Vail--a former Chicago state's attorney, now a prosperous lawyer-celebrity--issues glib proclamations about the shifting, uncertain boundaries of truth in a voice that fails to cloak the pleasure he gets from his own company. Gere's familiar manner aids him at this moment; his pinched, insincere smile, his expressionless, buttonlike eyes and his bland handsomeness bring actor and role together in a convincing, though not terribly flattering, confluence. For one of the few times in his career, Gere is utterly believable. Until he's required to exhibit sincerity, that is.

The transformation of Vail from an F. Lee Bailey-style cynic to a crusader for justice forms the crux of Primal Fear (directed by Gregory Hoblit, from the novel by William Diehl), and had Gere been able to pull it off, the numerous cliches that populate the tale might have been easier to overlook. But when the story calls for Vail's facade to crumble, Gere is unable to remove more than a few bricks. He's not a particularly giving actor; rather than reacting to other cast members, he tends to disappear into a personal reverie to which no one else is invited. He's seemingly never seen a mirror he didn't love. Thus, Vail's big moments of self-revelation become exercises in self-immersion. He talks a good game, but thanks to the superficiality of Gere's characterization, he appears less concerned with equity than with the fit of his suits.

That Gere maintains this sense of remoteness so consistently is actually something of an accomplishment given the emotionally stacked deck he's got to shuffle through. Fresh off winning a case for a ridiculously sympathetic crime lord (Steven Bauer), Vail chases an ambulance to a holding cell containing teenager Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton, in his film debut). The young man is accused in the especially messy knife murder of a Chicago archbishop (Stanley Anderson), but director Hoblit and co-scenarists Steve Shagan and Ann Biderman don't take the risk of making him seem unsympathetic. A shy, stammering Kentucky altar boy with a pasty complexion and a downcast gaze, Stampler initially makes Forest Gump seem like Hannibal Lecter by comparison. Despite his cockamamie explanation of why he was caught fleeing the murder scene drenched in blood and subsequent clues about the archbishop's taste for perversion, Vail promptly comes to the conclusion that his client is innocent. This contention brings him into conflict with State's Attorney John Shaughnessy (John Mahoney), who wants a quick, politically expedient conviction, and Assistant State's Attorney Janet Venable (Laura Linney).

EEPredictably, Vail and Venable are several months removed from an affair; in Hollywood, it's unthinkable that a man and a woman who once worked together could have done so without staining sheets together a time or two. When Gere and Linney are matched on the screen, however, they're all but drowned out by the sound of one hand clapping. Several bits attempt to establish a droll sexual tension between the two, but Gere's greasy reticence and Linney's cigarette-fumbling edginess guarantee middling results. Think of it as Adam's Rib without personality.

Other actors get shorter shrift. Mahoney, a versatile, sturdy talent, is stuck in a part that's almost completely tangential to the plot. His icy bureaucrat is the reddest of herrings, leaving him to practice his chops in a vacuum. Still, he's luckier than Alfre Woodard, who's severely underutilized as the judge who oversees Stampler's trial. Until the last reel, her dialogue is dominated by stereotypical legalese; worse, the script puts her in the position of allowing testimony that wouldn't pass muster on The People's Court. Also wasted is Andre Braugher, a Homicide: Life on the Street regular who is left to rot in Gere's shadow. And as for Frances McDormand--so good in Fargo--her turn as an easily duped psychiatrist is too dour and restrained; her slack features seem in danger of slipping off her face entirely. Then again, the awkward staging of her lengthy interrogations of Stampler make her reticence understandable. The altar boy, you see, may or may not suffer from multiple-personality disorder, and while Norton does what he can to prevent Stampler's Sybil-esque transitions from becoming too comic, the contrivances ultimately become too unwieldy. Had the courtroom scene appeared as part of an episode of L.A. Law, it would have been played for laughs. Here it's supposed to be the dramatic high point.

Hoblit--who executive-produced L.A. Law and Hill Street Blues and was nominated for an Emmy for his direction of the NYPD Blue pilot--should have known better. But despite his familiarity with the territory, his handling of the material is pedestrian. Even though his director

of photography is the gifted Michael Chapman, who worked on Raging Bull and Taxi Driver with Martin Scorsese, Hoblit achieves a look little different from what he's done on television. The shaky-cam shots, the quick cutting, the booming closeups: These pyrotechnics are all present and accounted for, but they can't save the static courtroom confrontations. Fortunately, the effects have more impact in a scene in which Gere and Braugher chase a potential witness through a makeshift homeless encampment. The scene is included only to break up the endless interior shots from which the picture is built, and though it doesn't make much sense in terms of Gere's character, it's a nice gesture nonetheless.

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