Directed by: Jon Avnet (Up Close and Personal)
Starring: Al Pacino, Alicia Witt, Leelee Sobieski, Amy Brenneman, William Forsythe, Neal McDonough
Among other things, Jon Avnet’s 88 Minutes manages to pack a solid four-stars worth of unintentional hilarity into one-and-a-half-stars worth of bad movie. Now, that’s an accomplishment worthy of the Contadina tomato-paste slogan, “eight big tomatoes in that little bitty can.” The year’s not half over, I know, but this singularly bizarre exercise in silly melodrama stands a good chance of being this year’s equivalent of last year’s I Know Who Killed Me. Granted, Al Pacino does manage to get through the movie with all his limbs intact, but the mere fact that he seems to have found Frank Langella’s hair from the 1979 Dracula and insists on wearing it makes up for that. Actually, Pacino’s hair gives the film by far its most convincing performance.
Certainly, it’s more believable than the depiction of the 67-year-old Pacino as catnip to all the ladies. OK, that may be true of Pacino the actor or Pacino the movie star. But in the character of Dr. Jack Gramm—the self-centered, self-absorbed, tyrannical, abrasive and just plain not nice character at the core of this movie—his babe-magnet status is only slightly more believable than the movie’s plot.
Here’s the pitch. Dr. Gramm, a college professor who spends his spare time working as a “forensic psychologist” for the FBI, almost single-handedly secures the conviction of Jon Forster (Neal McDonough, a veteran of I Know Who Killed Me no less) as a serial killer. Nine years later—with Forster in the big house awaiting execution—an identical killing occurs (naturally, the murders are of the flashy kind, with scads of sadistic theatricality). Not only does this cast doubt in everyone’s mind—except that of the arrogant Gramm—as to Forster’s guilt, but lo and behold, Gramm is himself implicated in the murder.
As if this doesn’t put enough of a crimp in his day, Gramm receives a message that he has 88 minutes to live—thereby establishing the movie’s “real-time” gimmick. I didn’t time it to see whether or not it really is 88 minutes from that point to the film’s conclusion, as is claimed. I did check the first few updates on how long he supposedly has left, and I can say the movie plays fast and loose with its gimmick in small doses at least. That, however, is the least of the film’s troubles.
The gimmick itself—not to mention the mystery of its title (no, it doesn’t involve a homicidal pianist, unfortunately)—is pointless. Worse, it plays right into Pacino’s worst instincts as an actor. In other words, since time is of the essence, he gets to shout his dialogue to convey the urgency of the whole thing—and he shouts a lot as a result. But even that’s a minor problem when put up next to the script—which not only boasts some pretty bizarre notions of how courts, the police, the FBI and even campus security function, but also insists on being a mystery.
No one seems to have a clue how to craft a mystery anymore and screenwriter Gary Scott Thompson (who gave us such gems as The Fast and the Furious) is no exception. His idea of a mystery consists of offering every character in the movie his or her turn in the red-herring barrel. Even very marginal characters are called on to be very shifty indeed in an apparent attempt to distract us from the Movie 101 obviousness of whodunit. Any movie of this stripe that boasts a highly billed, recognizable performer who is scarcely in the film at all will conclude that said performer is at the bottom of all jiggery-pokery at hand. Mr. Thompson does not disappoint in this regard.
The various and sundry near-miss attempts on Gramm’s life make little sense—surely his tormentor has no plans to off him prior to the end of those 88 minutes—and are occasionally almost surrealistic in their absurdity. (Has the archfiend actually arranged for a fire truck to nearly run Gramm down?) The script is nicely aided and abetted by Jon Avnet’s direction, with its infrequent outbursts of artiness (there may be a good reason that Avnet hasn’t directed a feature film since 1997). One such outburst makes it appear that it took nine years for a seaplane to take off. But in all fairness, there’s a lot of blame to go around and plenty of folks to spread it out among—including the film’s 17 other (exempting Avnet and Thompson) producers, coproducers, executive producers and associate producers. Well, maybe it takes that many producers to come up with something this ridiculous. Rated R for disturbing violent content, brief nudity and language.