Last weekend I saw two movies that squandered a lot of talent on very little. The results in one case qualified as mildly diverting entertainment. The other was a dead end so foregone, it's mystifying why anyone started down it.
"The Runaway Jury" (at the Majestic Bay) is the latest adaptation of a John Grisham best-seller. I stopped reading Grisham six or seven titles ago, so I can't report on the fidelity or infidelity with which director Gary Fleder and four screenwriters have translated the sacred text to film, or whether the movie's yawning gaps and improbabilities are Grisham's or theirs.
In a prologue, a handsome young husband and father (an uncredited Dylan McDermott) is blown away at the office, along with 10 coworkers, when your generic disgruntled employee comes calling with hefty firepower in hand. Two years later, his widow (Joanna Going) has hired folksy New Orleans lawyer Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman) to sue the gun industry over the deaths. Corporate America strikes back by hiring Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman), the most diabolical jury-selection consultant in the land, who lords it over a small army and a veritable multimedia war room to turn every potential juror's history and psyche inside-out. Meanwhile, an affable store clerk named Nick Easter (John Cusack) twists and flails to get out of jury duty - except that he's really making sure he gets on the jury, so that he and his girlfriend (Rachel Weisz doing one of those studiedly blank American accents British actors fall back on) can steer the verdict and sell it to the higher bidder.
"The Runaway Jury" aims to serve up interwining suspense tracks, with deviousness and double meanings built into every action and transaction. Most of the jurors have private agendas that complicate things over and above the two legal teams' attempts to read and exploit them. Then there are Nick's manipulations of his fellow panelists, and the director's manipulations of ... us.
Little of this approaches credibility, least of all the precise timing of just when we - or Fitch or Rohr - are supposed to cease believing one false track or other.
The film is one of those tic-tic-tic, mindlessly "modern" movies in which few shots or perspectives are held long enough to matter. Fleder further undercuts involvement by setting off direct views of the characters against video monitorings of them by other people. The cast is a casualty of this approach: a notably talented ensemble has been gathered (the jurors include Blair Brown, Cliff Curtis, Luis Guzman, Gerry Bamman, Bill Nunn and a barely glimpsed and less-heard Jennifer Beals), then given no sustained scenes to develop real tensions.
The stars aren't exempt. Rohr is so undersupplied with scenes that Dustin Hoffman scarcely rates his marquee billing; in response, he seems to be having a private joke, underplaying to the point of hamminess. Fitch is meant to loom as a satanic presence, but Hackman's every move, chuckle or snarl is old hat, phoned in. The scene that ought to have been a showstopper, Fitch and Rohr meeting face to face - as old Pasadena Playhouse roommates Hackman and Hoffman appear together for the first time ever - falls flat as a flounder. Only Cusack, always an intelligent and ingratiating presence, rises to the occasion; but since it's an essentially specious occasion, his diligence is wasted.
Still, you come away from "The Runaway Jury" disappointed, not traduced. "Wonderland" (at the Uptown) is probably the year's worst movie that had any pretensions to being notable. Based on a never-solved mystery that unfolded in Southern California in 1981, it focuses on the involvement of former porn star John "Johnny Wad" Holmes in a gory multiple murder. Either Holmes didn't do it, wasn't even there, was there but against his will, was there and did some of it but probably was too drug-addled to remember, or....
The movie stages the events, different versions of the events and the run-up to the events several times over, hoping to be taken for an American variant on "Rashomon" tinctured by the bitter aftertaste of rotten pop celebrity. Christopher Walken long aspired to play Holmes, and one can only dream of the daft glamour he might have brought to it. Val Kilmer ended up playing the part, and he does have one magical scene: walking into a cocaine den, snorting up every line in sight like an avaricious puppy, then walking out without a word.
"Wonderland," directed by James Cox, is even more jittery than "The Runaway Jury" in its Mix-Mastering of shots, points of view and arrantly miscellaneous visual textures. Trippy. "Spun," earlier this year, was freakier, more astutely jangled and funny to boot. And of course the penultimate, 25-minute, drug-stoked horrorshow in P.T. Anderson's 1997 "Boogie Nights" was worth the whole of this movie, 10 times over.