Film and TV

Lethal Dose

There's an old adage that says by the age of forty, a man gets the face he deserves. If that's true, then Clint Eastwood, the producer, director and star of the death-row thriller True Crime, must have committed a capital offense or two of his own. To call it "lived in" doesn't do it justice: It's been lived in, booted around, dragged, punched, folded, spindled and mutilated. By this point, it is so creased from squinting that it has frozen into a sort of permanent, pissed-off sneer. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but with Eastwood, it limits the range of expression of an actor who, to begin with, has an emotional range that runs the gamut from A to a little past A.

As a result, Eastwood the actor leaves Eastwood the producer/director with very little to work with. The solution is the one to which most performers who've made their reputations as tough guys come: He plays his tough-guy machismo for laughs. And for the first part of True Crime, this approach is moderately pleasing. Or rather, the first part of one half of the film.

I say one half because the movie operates on two parallel tracks. One track chronicles the ramshackle existence of Steve Everett (Eastwood), a reporter for the Oakland Tribune. From what we're able to piece together from the film's early scenes, Everett was once a newspaperman of considerable talent, but that was before the booze and the chronic womanizing took their toll. These days Everett is making an attempt to pull himself together, though from all appearances, he's not in any hurry to do it. He may have switched from bloody Marys to virgin Marys, but he still smokes like a chimney--even at the office, where it's strictly forbidden--and can't seem to cut down on the flirting. At present he is sleeping with the wife of his paper's city editor (an entertainingly disgusted Denis Leary), who, when he's trying to reach the reprobate writer, just calls home and leaves the message with his own wife.

The reason the editor is trying to track Everett down is because he has a story for him. At midnight on that very night, an inmate on San Quentin's death row is going to be executed, and the editor wants Everett to take over for a fellow reporter who was killed the night before in an automobile accident. He's supposed to go out to the prison and do an interview with the inmate for a simple human-interest sidebar. No Dick Tracy stuff, he says. Just a simple human-interest story.

The time frame of the film is 24 hours, and while we're following Everett as he moves through his day, we're also counting down the minutes in the last day in the life of Frank Beachum (an impressive Isaiah Washington). The crime for which Beachum is being executed took place six years earlier. Since his sentencing, Beachum has come to terms with his conviction (though he's never confessed his guilt), deepened his faith in God and grown even closer to his wife (Lisa Gay Hamilton) and their young daughter (Penny Rae Bridges).

Having exhausted all their legal appeals, Beachum and his wife no longer entertain the possibility of any last-minute miracles. Everett, though, thinks he smells something funny. He's got a nose, he tells his editor-in-chief (a robust James Woods)--that's about all he's got. And in the last several years when he was drinking, his nose was no longer dependable. (It went very wrong, for example, on a controversial rape case.) Now that he's sober again, he thinks his instincts are back on track, and he begins to conduct a quickie investigation, hoping to prove Beachum's innocence, certainly, but, of even greater importance, to vindicate himself and his "hunches."

The problem here has less to do with content and more with style. From the outset, Eastwood's basic approach toward his own character is light-fingered and comical. He encourages us to view Everett as an old dinosaur from an earlier age of man, a newspaper man from the old school. In his easygoing way as a director, he draws laughs out of Everett's anachronism--the fact that he won't acknowledge the existence of, say, secondhand smoke or that it's not cool to ask a female colleague to fetch him a cup of coffee. He wants, for example, to be a good daddy, but he blows an outing with his baby daughter by trying to combine a visit to the zoo with a little reporting. The result is "speed zoo," which leaves his daughter crying and covered with Band-Aids and Everett's wife (Diane Venora) convinced that their relationship is over.

Beachum also has a daughter, and clearly, Eastwood wants to draw parallels between the murderer--who seems to have excellent parenting skills and a good marriage--and Everett, but they never emerge. That Eastwood cast his wife, Dina, his daughter Francesca and her mother, Frances Fisher, in the film has led some reviewers to speculate about the personal nature of the film. But the feel of the picture is far too slack and lackadaisical to be personal. The notion that a reporter could be assigned to a story for a twelve-hour period, end up breaking the case and saving the accused man's life is preposterous.

What's more, Eastwood has always played the dinosaur, and from the general lack of sharpness in nearly every aspect of the film, it seems as if he is almost as bored with this idea as we are. The scenes of agitated bantering between Everett and his editor are macho pissing contests of the sort that we used to see when Eastwood was called on the carpet as a detective by a higher-ranking officer who is sick and tired of watching him turn the streets of the city into a shooting gallery. Throughout all of this, the only emotion Everett shows is irritation. During the jailhouse interview he has with Beachum, he seems completely indifferent to the answers Beachum gives. When Beachum and his wife ask if he believes their story, Everett turns around and growls back his answer. It's as if Everett had an afternoon tee time and the interview was causing him to be late.

The whole project feels lazy and halfhearted, not least of all the finale in which Everett tries to beat the clock by driving the woman who has the one piece of evidence that might save Beachum to the governor's house so that he can make that all-important last-minute call to the prison before the clock ticks its last tock. By that point, though, whatever it was they were pumping into Beachum's arm looked mighty good to me.

True Crime.
Written by Larry Gross, Paul Brickman and Stephen Shiff. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Clint Eastwood, James Woods, Isaiah Washington, Denis Leary, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Penny Rae Bridges and Diane Venora.