Incongruous Double Feature: Righteous Kill and The Women

by |
09/23/2008 9:00 AM |

Jesse Hassenger Sees These Two Gross Old Guys; Also Some Crass Ladies of Various Ages

The plan was to draw up the evening’s date by gender lines: we would go see the dude movie, and then duck into the lady movie to even things out. Our logic was almost immediately dinged by the first-weekend exit polling that showed women made up the majority of the Righteous Kill audience, too (and, for that matter, few twentysomethings of either gender attended either). But we forged ahead; nothing bonds a relationship like a guilty desire to see a movie almost no one has said is any good.

Indeed, the reviews for Righteous Kill were not encouraging, but I had to see it simply because it’s the first full-on Al Pacino/Robert De Niro team-up; even if I weren’t solidly half-Italian, that would be pretty enticing. Pacino and De Niro have inched ever closer over their many years on film, occupying separate timelines in The Godfather, Part II, and then, a couple of decades later, spending Heat chasing each other around, save for that perfect coffee-shop scene in the middle of the picture. In Righteous Kill, they share scenes upon scenes. In fact, they’re together more often than they’re apart, to the point that I feared mainstream cinema’s patented ludicrous plot twist — a revelation that they were the same person all along (the screenplay has a less ridiculous, though hardly more inspired, turn in store).

Apart from those bad-screenwriting jitters, the first chunk of Righteous Kill is sort of fun — Pacino and De Niro certainly don’t create interesting characters, but their banter as grizzled NYPD detectives is playful and relaxed. Having just, earlier this year, seen Pacino at his sleepwalking worst in staggeringly awful 88 Minutes, a film by Righteous Kill‘s director, the fact that Kill plays more like a TNT original movie from the late nineties than a USA original movie from the early nineties is something of a mild blessing.

But Avnet doesn’t exactly get out of the way and let the actors cruise through a straightforward pulp thriller, either — Pacino and De Niro are still chasing a serial killer, and Avnet still indulges in his bizarre late-career interest in killer’s-eye-view shots and women getting brutalized. After the novelty of watching Pacino and De Niro josh each other wears off, you’re forced to notice that while their previous semi-collaborations were supported by the likes of Val Kilmer, Ashley Judd, Natalie Portman, William Fichter, Jon Voight, and Tom Sizemore (thirteen years ago) or Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, James Caan, and Bruno Kirby (thirty-four years ago), this one has the more TV-scale back-up of Brian Dennehy, John Leguizamo, Carla Gugino, Donnie Wahlberg, and 50 Cent. Nothing against Dennehy, Leguizamo, or the foxy and sly Gugino (a little bit against 50 Cent, who should leave the inadvisable process of acting through teeth to Tom Cruise); they just don’t have the power to juice up such a resolutely uninteresting script.

The movie as a whole is illustrative of the helplessness of screenwriters in the studio system: Russell Gewirtz’s first produced screenplay, for Inside Man, looked like a jazzy, twisty tribute to New York City. Anyone watching this second, far junkier twisty New York-set crime thriller will retroactively award even more credit for Inside Man to Spike Lee. Gewirtz’s only consolation may be that Righteous Kill isn’t memorable enough to keep its own reputation. Its existence will mainly serve to vaguely improve the standing of already-beloved movies; it could be easily retitled In the Mood to Watch Heat.

There’s less disappointment inherent in The Women, at least to me, because the 1939 movie it’s remaking already covers this material with reasonable skill (if little resemblance), and because the earlier version isn’t so momentous that it can really be sullied much by a middling “updated” version (especially, again, given the lack of common ground between the two films). First-time director Diane English created Murphy Brown for TV, and hasn’t figured out how to readjust dialogue for the screen; some of it plays like slowed-down sitcom speak, as if long pauses will make the wisecracks more realistic, while other scenes have all of the characters flittering about and chattering over each other — like Meg Ryan doing a Robert Altman movie, which in its bland way, it sort of is.

English does maintain the original film’s conceit that no men appear on screen, even as extras, which is a neat visual trick, but in her attempts to jettison any hints of latent sexism in the earlier version, she loses any satiric teeth, too. This leaves Ryan, Annette Bening (doing cut-rate Samantha shtick), Debra Messing, and Jada Pinkett-Smith to make pithy observations, rather than engaging in recognizable behavior. The film seems slightly more aware of its characters upper-upper-class lifestyle excesses than Sex and the City, but not much more critical. How can it be, with Meg Ryan’s face threatening to melt off during her crying scenes?

What unites Righteous Kill and The Women (beyond apparent lady appeal) is the sense that they’re coming out ten or twenty years too late, but refuse to acknowledge as much. Given its obviously low quality, Kill feels like a now-or-never proposition for reuniting its two lead actors, yet only fleetingly acknowledges their advancing age as fodder for the kind of movie-cop burnout that happens to clichéd characters of all ages. Even a lighter exploration in the vein of Space Cowboys could’ve been a lot of fun; instead, we get two more angry (yawn) cops on the edge (zzz). The Women has been in the works even longer than a potential Pacino/De Niro rematch, on and off since I started reading Entertainment Weekly in 1993, with Ryan, Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Whitney Houston, Ashley Judd, Uma Thurman, and Marisa Tomei all mentioned as casting possibilities. For all of the passion English obviously put into getting the project into theaters, the final version feels diminished; an all-star update of a classic film deflated into a B-list Sex and the City placebo.

Both projects attempt to recall triumphs less recent than that summer hit: Righteous Kill wants us to remember all of those great Pacino and/or De Niro-starring crime dramas reaching back into the mid-seventies, and The Women is supposed to be a modern-day version of those ’39 all-stars. But they’re more like relics from the eighties, when star monuments reigned, no matter how cheap the construction.