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Histrionics on Parade

Lacking the good taste to postpone the release of this silly thriller until a less volatile time in American history (assuming one ever comes), the producers of Don't Say a Word have opted to foist upon us images of detonating New York City buildings, carefully calculated acts of violence, and even someone being buried alive. Nice.

The narrative itself is a model of simplicity, which could have given screenwriters Anthony Peckham and Patrick Smith Kelly plenty of latitude for experimentation in adapting Andrew Klavan's novel, but, alas, these opportunities are steadfastly wasted. Instead, under the brusque and pushy direction of Gary Fleder (Kiss the Girls), the movie's dramatic course becomes an excuse for excesses of familiar and not particularly engrossing technique.

Cloaked in his threadbare role of oppressed mensch fighting back, Michael Douglas plays a Manhattan psychiatrist named Conrad, whose cozy, yuppified existence is shaken to the core when his darling eight-year-old daughter, Jessie (sharp-eyed Skye McCole Bartusiak), is suddenly abducted. Since his much-younger wife, Aggie (Famke Janssen), is bedridden with a broken leg, and the cops cannot be alerted due to the extreme sensitivity of the circumstances, it's up to Conrad to meet the perpetrators' demands, to save his daughter, and to distract us from the production designer's daunting task of making Toronto look like New York on Thanksgiving .

The evildoers are a motley lot of rogue bandits representing assorted cultural stereotypes (jive-talkin' black dude, wallet-chain-swingin' redneck, et cetera) under the guidance of a very mean honcho named Patrick Koster (Sean Bean, looking none too lean), who needs a special six-digit number that will lead him to a tiny piece of red glass masquerading as a diamond. Poor Dr. Conrad is unlucky enough to be the missing link.

This is the main problem with Don't Say a Word, the glitch that throws its good intentions right off the track: With the exception of the beguiling Bartusiak, everyone has their emotional intensity stuck in high gear, delivering stilted histrionics instead of gripping performances. Fleder tries to take cheap shortcuts toward agitating us, and under his ham-fisted command, the actors simply struggle in vain to keep the action plausible. Scenes like Aggie's handicapped battle in the villains' lair (replete with laptop computers hilariously exploding into showers of sparks) and Conrad's final confrontation with Koster's gang (which turns mercilessly cruel) might have worked with a bit of pacing or logic, but Fleder is only interested in adrenaline and payback, to the point of absurdity.

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Gregory Weinkauf

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