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A Soft Touch

Elmore Leonard's Touch is identified on the paperback as a mystery and carried in stores next to Leonard's celebrated crime novels (like Get Shorty). But this wan little book is actually the problem child of Leonard's oeuvre--the only crime it involves is lack of truth in advertising, and that's on the part of the paperback house. Leonard's novel is about a former Franciscan monk named Juvenal (played in the film by Skeet Ulrich) who heals people with his touch and is also a stigmatic, breaking out in the wounds that Jesus suffered on the cross. In the course of the wispy plot, he falls in love with a record plugger (Bridget Fonda), a former employee and current associate of a churchless evangelist and con artist (Christopher Walken). Juvenal almost kills a Catholic zealot (Tom Arnold), the head of an outfit called OUTRAGE (Organization Unifying Traditional Rites As God Expects). But as the book-flap copy on the original hardcover proclaims, the novel "is less about crime than innocence." Leonard himself says that Touch is simply about "accepting what is. Abiding with the facts. Nothing more"--which sounds a lot like the "serenity prayer" taught in detox. (Juvenal works at an alcohol-rehab center.) Touch is a homily badly disguised as a comedy--a change of pace that meant more to the author than it did to most of his readers.

Leonard explained in his introduction to the first edition that he wrote the book in 1977. Over a dozen publishers rejected it. Only after Leonard became a brand name was he able to get Touch into print, in 1987; he did no significant rewriting, though he said that he would have updated the topical references if he had rewritten it. That's pretty much all that writer/director Paul Schrader has done here--a gag in the book that involves Frank Sinatra Jr. now concerns L.L. Cool J. But updating is trickier than playing fill-in-the-blanks. A contemporary film spotted with stigmatic's blood cries out for more references to AIDS than a single tasteless joke. And who would have thought that having a sleaze-joint dancer compare Juvenal's power to George Lucas's Force would still have currency in 1997? Unless I missed a throwaway line, apparently not Schrader.

Shifting the novel's setting from Detroit to Los Angeles swiftly turns problematic: The story loses whatever real, local roots it had in the Midwest's up-from-the-South fundamentalism and rock-ribbed Catholicism. The film's locations are deliberately denatured and drab; you get the idea that if the camera shifted an inch in either direction you'd spot the water tower on the Burbank lot. Having already pulled off a spiritual odyssey in his unrecognized masterwork Light Sleeper, Schrader chooses to emphasize the slapstick-grifter aspects of Leonard's novel. The director's notion is that Middle America has grown so bland and listless that it aspires to talk-showhood. But that thrust is as old as the (Hollywood) hills, as are the jabs at journalistic hustling (with Janeane Garofalo as a newspaper reporter on the make) and tabloid TV. Still, what's mainly wrong with the movie is, well, the book.

Ulrich aside (he's like Johnny Depp lite--or liter), the cast ranges from agreeable to engaging, with Walken doing one of his prime impersonations of superficial rationality at work within a hustler's dementia. And there are moments when Schrader's preoccupations merge uproariously with Leonard's, particularly in a fantasy done in the "dignified" manner of a Sunday-school slide show, picturing Tom Arnold as a martyred Christian saint. But in the end, all that holds the story together is Juvenal making his way through twentieth-century Stations of the Cross: fame, exploitation, bad (and good) publicity, and attack TV. And though Schrader and Leonard may think it's daring to give a saint a sex drive and let him live happily ever after, Juvenal is a bore. At one point, he tells Fonda that she thinks he's telepathic because he's a good listener. When she washed the stigmata stains off his and her laundry, I was afraid he'd tell her that cleanliness was next to godliness.

Touch.
Written and directed by Paul Schrader. From Elmore Leonard's novel. With Skeet Ulrich, Christopher Walken, Bridget Fonda and Tom Arnold.

 
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