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Past Perfect, Present Flawed

Rule number one: When crafting a thriller, make sure the audience can relate to, identify with, or empathize with at least one of the characters. Rule number two: The characters' motivations must be clear. Fail in either area -- or, worse, in both -- and you end up with a film like A Perfect Murder, the slick but utterly uninvolving new suspense-thriller starring Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Based on Frederick Knott's play Dial M For Murder -- which was turned into a memorable film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1954 -- A Perfect Murder retools the characters and adds a few new plot twists. Douglas plays his trademark role: the steely, emotionally controlled millionaire financier who views life as a series of power plays and acquisitions. In this instance he goes by the name of Steven Taylor. Paltrow plays Emily, his beautiful, intelligent, and much younger wife, a woman who is tired of his humorless, authoritarian manner and has taken a sexy, earthy artist named David (Viggo Mortensen) as her lover.

Unbeknownst to Emily, Steven is wise to the affair. Consumed by jealousy, rage, and greed (it turns out her portfolio is even bigger than his), he plots her demise, certain that he has contrived a foolproof plan. But as audiences everywhere know, there is no such thing as "a perfect murder," and the botched homicide proves just the beginning of a series of cat-and-mouse games.

The picture's biggest problem is that not one of the characters is sympathetic. Presumably Emily is supposed to be, but without any back-story to explain why she married Steven and little concrete evidence that he mistreats her, it's hard to muster much compassion for her. She comes across as a pampered rich kid who has looks, money, and position and still isn't happy. (Grace Kelly, who starred in the Hitchcock version, was extremely sympathetic. She seemed to want her marriage to work and was confused as to why her husband was so cold. We never see Paltrow trying to hold her marriage together. She wants out from the get-go.)

In designing Steven's character, screenwriter Patrick Smith Kelly left a big hole where "motivation" should go. Steven's reasons for wanting Emily dead are never adequately explored. According to the press notes, he is very much in love with his wife and is both heartbroken and enraged that she is two-timing him. None of this comes across in Douglas' performance, however, and the viewer is left to ponder his reasons for wanting her killed.

The role of the boyfriend has been significantly expanded from the original theatrical and movie versions. Mortensen, a very fine actor who is likely unfamiliar to many viewers (he appeared in G.I. Jane), makes surprisingly little impression here. It's the fault of a script that positions him as more of a plot device than a character.

This kind of weakness afflicts the entire script. Kelly expends far more energy on plot than on character development, and while he comes up with one or two nifty surprises, the story's tension level never rises. When an audience doesn't care what happens to any of the characters, it's almost impossible to build suspense.

The film also suffers from a strange lethargy, moving at such a sluggish pace -- at times the actors seem little more than glamorous mannequins -- that moviegoers may think they have strayed onto the set of Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad (1961), a film that at least was supposed to be deathly slow. Director Andrew Davis, who proved he can handle both action and emotion with 1993's The Fugitive (but whose subsequent films, 1995's Steal Big, Steal Little and 1996's Chain Reaction, were big disappointments), can't seem to get a handle on the pacing here.

And in an age when practically every film at least looks good, A Perfect Murder has a stale, overbaked visual style, with harsh lighting and colors that look as if they have been left out in the sun too long, becoming hard and dry. The photography proves especially unforgiving for its female stars; both Paltrow and Sarita Choudhury (Mississippi Masala), who plays Emily's best friend Raquel, look terrible. Douglas, on the other hand, looks great. The wonderful British actor David Suchet is wasted in the minuscule role of the police detective in charge of the murder investigation. (In the 1954 film, the detective -- a Scotland Yard inspector wittily portrayed by John Williams -- is easily the most enjoyable character. The part has been severely reduced in this new adaptation.)

It's unfortunate A Perfect Murder is being touted as a remake of Dial M For Murder. Not only are there enough plot and character differences for the new film to stand -- or fall -- on its own merits, but the inevitable comparison with Hitchcock's work leaves the picture looking particularly lame and unsatisfying. One nice touch: An early sequence is shot inside New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, a fabulous location too rarely used in movies.

A Perfect Murder.
Directed by Andrew Davis. Written by Patrick Kelly Smith, based on the play Dial M For Murder by Frederick Knott. Starring Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Viggo Mortensen.

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Jean Oppenheimer

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