The Good, the Bad and the Brilliant

Imagine a Quentin Tarantino movie made by a grownup. A movie fueled by Tarantino's brand of daredevil adrenaline but with none of his schoolboy nihilism. A movie drenched in blood that also understands loss. A swaggering black comedy stuffed with betrayals that still takes time to glimpse the soul of a weary old hitman who likes to cook and the higher instincts of an angry wife embroiled in a life-insurance scam.

Deep down, John Herzfeld's 2 Days in the Valley is about failure and redemption--pretty time-worn subjects, no?--but there's nothing predictable, soft or sappy about it. Like Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs, it can blindside us with manic violence, but a moment later we're laughing at the pretensions of a trendy art dealer with a house stuffed full of overpriced trash. No sooner do we recoil from the sadism of a killer who measures out the last minute of each victim's life with a stopwatch than we are taken in by a suicidal Hollywood writer who's trying to find a new home for his dog before he pulls the trigger.

Until now, Herzfeld was probably regarded most highly for TV's slightly soggy, real-life AIDS drama, The Ryan White Story. But Valley might signal his arrival as a distinctive new filmmaker. Tarantino comparisons aside, this smart, dark, fiendishly funny picture looks and feels like nothing else out there. But then, how many movies are inspired by a visit to a cemetery, then written in a four-week frenzy? And how many big casts this uniformly gifted seem to get so much pleasure from their work?

Here's news from the Left Coast: L.A.'s oft-maligned San Fernando Valley--the valley of the title--conceals a vivid gallery of characters. The good hitman is Dosmo Pizzo (Danny Aiello), a beat-up ex-gambler whose bad wig doesn't fit but whose courtly demeanor bespeaks a gentleman; the bad hitman is Lee Woods (James Spader, back where he belongs), the savage with the stopwatch. The good bad girl is Becky Foxx (Lois and Clark's Teri Hatcher), a failed Olympic ski racer who's put a contract on her nasty hubby; the bad bad girl is Helga Svelgen (Charlize Theron), a leggy blond Viking with a taste for blood. The good cop is Wes Taylor (Eric Stoltz), who wants out of vice and into homicide; the bad cop is Alvin Strayer (Jeff Daniels), who's psychologically unfit to serve but has his reasons.

Real-life writer/director Paul Mazursky is the fictional fallen writer/director Teddy Peppers, a heartbeat away from ending his life; Glenne Headly is Susan, a loyal secretary abused by Greg Cruttwell's insufferable egotist of an art dealer--until Dosmo the hitman falls for her. Marsha Mason is Audrey Hopper, a nurse who grieves for her dead lover until the depressed writer/director Teddy Peppers finds new life in her.

They're all thrown together by a botched murder plot, a big helping of greed and a hostage-taking. In varying degrees, they're all losers--good and bad alike--and some among them will get a second chance to win. To say more might ruin the fun or blunt the danger. Suffice it to say that Herzfeld is a clever fellow indeed, that his plot twists are dazzling and that this enthusiastic, richly talented cast--every man and woman involved--lights up 2 Days in the Valley like a fireworks display.

Shopping for an adventurous new look this fall? Here's a choice, in deftly mixed tones of terror, wit and sweet-tempered generosity.--Gallo

2 Days in the Valley.
Written and directed by John Herzfeld. With Danny Aiello, James Spader, Teri Hatcher, Paul Mazursky, Charlize Theron and Greg Cruttwell.

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