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Slouching Toward Noir

Palmetto is a film noir set in a torpid seaside Florida town. It's based on the 1961 James Hadley Chase novel Just Another Sucker, and when we first see Harry Barber (Woody Harrelson), he fits that description exactly. He looks dazed and confused -- a sucker incarnate. Suckers are, of course, integral to noir; they provide the blood supply for the genre's predatory vamps. It's been said that a thriller is only as good as its chief villain, and in the same way, most noirs are only as good as their suckers.

Palmetto has a good sucker but not much else. Harrelson is everything one could hope for, but he's surrounded by a cast, including Elisabeth Shue, Michael Rapaport, Chloe Sevigny, and an underused Gina Gershon, that appears to have seen too many noirs -- bad noirs. Their elaborate machinations are so transparently base that they might as well be camping it up for the camera. The trick to getting noir right is to play it absolutely straight; a character's looniness or greed may appear absurd to us, but it needs to be depicted as deathly serious to its practitioner. Palmetto isn't a takeoff on noir, yet it seems like one. It appears to be winking at the audience when, instead, it should be trying to stare us down.

Part of the film's seeming phoniness can be traced to the fact that director Volker Schlsndorff (1979's The Tin Drum) is a German adapting a novel by a British pulp novelist who wrote about America without ever spending any time here. (Chase was the pseudonym for Rene Raymond.) There's an uncomfortably twice-removed quality about the movie. Screenwriter E. Max Frye (1986's Something Wild) sets out all the proper pulp/noir place settings, but Schlsndorff doesn't really provide a meal.

The film's press notes carry an interesting quote from the director: "My friend [filmmaker] Bertrand Tavernier asked me why I didn't ever make the kind of movies I like to watch myself, a real 'movie' movie. I decided it was time to take a break from the heavier subject matter and have a little fun." But it's one thing to be a fan of noir, quite another to render it effectively. Palmetto is a fan's movie, and it has the kind of gaga unreality that a giddy cineaste might bring to it.

Harrelson has always had a look of frazzled lewdness that makes him perfect for roles ranging from Larry Flynt to the deranged vet in Wag the Dog. But Harrelson's lewdness doesn't have many levels. What you see is often what you get. In Palmetto he brings some softness to his usual slouch. Being a victim becomes him. His Harry Barber is a journalist who, at the beginning of the film, is released from prison after spending two years inside; it's been discovered that he was framed in a municipal corruption case. Angry and aimless, he drifts into a kidnap-for-ransom scheme engineered by Rhea Malroux (Shue), a curvy bundle apparently married to a wheezing millionaire (Rolf Hoppe) with a trampy daughter (Sevigny). Harry becomes the bad guy he was mistakenly believed to be, and he can't quite live up to the billing. When the police, attempting to track down the kidnappers, put Harry on the job as their press liaison, he finds himself double-whammied. Once a sucker, always a sucker.

If the filmmakers had concentrated on this comedy of suckerdom, they might have come up with something piquant -- Harrelson certainly was up for it. But Woody is surrounded by scenery-chewers. Shue is the worst offender, but Rapaport, playing Rhea's husband's bodyguard, is a close second. He's not playing a bad guy; he's an actor playing a bad guy.

Shue impressed a lot of people in 1995's Leaving Las Vegas because she brought a sensual bleariness to her patrician cool; she was a clean-cut slut with a heart of fool's gold. She hasn't been nearly as effective since. As the brainy scientist in last year's The Saint, she actually seemed rather dim; in the recent Deconstructing Harry, she was part of the female foliage with which Woody Allen adorned himself. In Palmetto, spilling out of an assortment of clingy dresses, Shue is so unconvincing in her wiles that you can't imagine even a stupe such as Harry getting stung.

Palmetto might not have been appreciably better even had it been more skillfully written. At this point in film history, it's not enough just to go through the same old noir paces. Something new must be added to the mix. John Dahl attempted to do this with 1993's Red Rock West and, to a lesser extent, the following year's The Last Seduction. It's what Curtis Hanson does so successfully in L.A. Confidential: He dramatizes his own ambivalence about the pulp conventions he expertly executes. If Schlsndorff has any feelings about noir, you'd never know it from Palmetto. He's just happy to be orchestrating the nastiness. But we've heard this score before.

Directed by Volker Schlsndorff. Written by E. Max Frye, from the novel by James Hadley Chase. Starring Woody Harrelson, Elisabeth Shue, Chloe Sevigny, Michael Rapaport, and Gina Gershon.

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Peter Rainer

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