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Perfect Patsy, Too-Perfect Parent 

Denzel Washington in Out of Time, Olympia Dukakis in The Event

Thursday, Oct 2 2003
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So here comes Denzel Washington with his hungry lope and his wary eyes — and a movie, at last, in which to lighten up. In Out of Time, an elegant new thriller directed by Carl Franklin from a cunning script by novice writer Dave Collard, Washington plays Matt Lee Whitlock, a small-town Florida police chief who’s up to his neck in trouble, most of it of his own making. The tiny gold hoop in Matt’s ear signals vanity and a certain amorphousness of character. He’s no strong, silent hero, which will come as a relief to those of us who think that heroes bring out a strain of moral implacability in Washington, a severity that began in St. Elsewhere and still pops up periodically (Remember the Titans, John Q., Antwone Fisher) as bombast.

Matt is a decent sort, but he’s smugly dug in, a big fish in a pond so tiny that nothing beyond the occasional drug bust seems to ruffle its surface. He’s a touch hapless and easily led by the nose — and, as the movie’s early scenes suggest, by other anatomical parts, which leads to his undoing in more ways than one. Out of Time opens more anxious than could possibly be necessary to prove Washington’s studly credentials — he’s as close to a matinee idol as we get these days — with a conversation between Matt and his married lover, Ann (the sultry Sanaa Lathan), that amounts to a rape fantasy, followed in short order by two steamy sexual encounters. Separated from his wife, Alex (Eva Mendes), a homicide detective, Matt is having an affair with Ann right under the nose of her thuggish football player of a husband (Dean Cain), but still carries a torch for his go-getting ex, no slouch herself in the smoldering department. Still, when Ann reveals she has terminal cancer, Matt’s natural gallantry kicks in. Refusing her offer to make him, not her husband, the beneficiary of her insurance policy, Matt gives Ann a pile of drug money, held for collection by ATF agents in the precinct safe, so that she can get experimental treatment in Switzerland. After Ann mysteriously vanishes and two hideously deformed bodies show up in the charred remains of Ann’s house, Matt is served with two sets of papers — his divorce papers, and Ann’s insurance policy, which shows that she made him her beneficiary after all.

The movie’s conceit is familiar enough. Even as he joins forces with the lovely Alex to hunt down the true killer, Matt must stay one step ahead of each scrap of evidence that points to him as the arsonist and the murderer of his secret lover. Franklin, who began his career full of promise with the 1992 sleeper hit One False Move, a wonderfully adroit meld of moody emotion and shocking violence, seemed to lose his footing for a while after his second film — the gorgeous Walter Mosley adaptation Devil in a Blue Dress — bombed. He made the sticky-sweet cancer drama One True Thing and, more recently, the forgettable Ashley Judd–Morgan Freeman thriller High Crimes. In the long run, Out of Time will probably rate as a trifle — there’s more skill than originality in Collard’s script — but the movie clips along with a natural warmth and lightness of heart. At its best, Franklin’s work is stylish and headily atmospheric: With its throbbing score and swampy carnality, Out of Time seduces us deliciously into the overworked proposition that Florida’s weather turns everyone into sex maniacs. This is hooey — in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, the case was more plausibly made that it breeds lunatics — but it is likable hooey, and it’s a joy to behold Washington think with his dick for a change, and be rescued by women of something resembling his own color. The movie is casually, glamorously multiracial, and Washington is great fun, but the final glory belongs to actor John Billingsley, who plays one of those rumpled minor characters plugged into thrillers to keep you guessing whether they’re light relief or something more sinister, and who, in a few memorably funny scenes, shuffles away with the movie.

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When it comes to the AIDS crisis, the movies have all but dropped the ball. So I wish I had kinder things to say about The Event, a new film about a Manhattan musician with AIDS who stages his own suicide, as well as the wild party that goes with it. AIDS or no AIDS, director Thom Fitzgerald has a thing for death: Like his 1997 first feature, The Hanging Garden, The Event is built around a gay man who is dead for much of the movie, here with copious flashbacks narrated by those who loved him. The musician, Matt Shapiro, and Brian, the hospice worker who helps him and ends up being dragged into the district attorney’s office for his pains, are played in an appealingly low key by Canadian actors Don McKellar and Brent Carver. Their ironic gravity is almost immediately undercut by the pack of strenuously kooky friends and family that surrounds them, creating a big sloppy mess of none-too-adept situation comedy. Fitzgerald wants it all — he means to rub our noses in the sordid details of dying from AIDS, which is fair enough, but he also wants to romanticize it to the hilt and endear both his characters and himself to us. But he lacks both narrative self-control (September 11 is gratuitously shoehorned in with a few images of the twin towers and ground zero) and the manic élan of John Cameron Mitchell and other interpreters of gay urban life. The result is a tonal confusion that detracts from the movie’s efforts to engage us in a conversation about assisted suicide.

Not that the topic is up for serious discussion. Fitzgerald stacks the deck against opponents of assisted suicide, a practice that, however widespread within and outside the gay community, remains an enormously thorny issue — especially so in this movie, since Matt decides to kill himself while he’s still relatively healthy. Fitzgerald firmly positions us on the side of the angels, which is not necessarily the most interesting place to be: If you can’t argue the point, glibness invariably results. Parker Posey, saddled with the thankless task of playing both a moral enemy and the movie’s framing device, is Nic, the ambitious young D.A. who, despite the fact that her own cancer-stricken father died a lingering and painful death, hounds Matt’s nearest and dearest for information about his suspiciously orderly demise. Hard of face and harder yet of heart, Nic is all too clearly headed for a life lesson. But her worst sin is a complete lack of femininity, a trait Fitzgerald blindly worships in its most traditional forms, whether manifested in mothers, sisters or drag queens.

All-forgiving, unfailingly supportive, and never less than elegantly coifed and tailored even while cleaning up her son’s shit, Lila Shapiro (played by Olympia Dukakis with impressive dignity) is the parent we all want — and someone who has never existed in this world. Matt’s hotheaded younger sister, even as played by the terrific Sarah Polley, is only marginally more believable. The most interesting person in the movie is Matt’s dissenting older sister, Gaby (Joanna P. Adler), the one who must be brought round to the correct point of view. As reasoning, this is manipulative — as filmmaking, it’s dull.

OUT OF TIME | Directed by CARL FRANKLIN | Written by DAVE COLLARD | Produced by NEAL H. MORITZ and JESSE B’FRANKLIN Released by MGM Pictures | Citywide

THE EVENT | Directed by THOM FITZGERALD | Written by TIM MARBACK, STEVEN HILLYER and FITZGERALD | Produced by BRYAN HOFBAUER and FITZGERALD | Released by THINKFilm | At Laemmle’s Sunset 5, UA Marketplace 6, Laemmle’s Town Center 5

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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