Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Middle-Of-The-Road Medical/Legal/Psychological Thriller, Malice Fails To Land.

The Good: Moments of character and plot development
The Bad: Most of the performances are unimpressive, Nothing stellar on the writing front.
The Basics: Malice is a largely underwhelming thriller that is hampered more by stiff acting and a mediocre sense of purpose.

With the return of The Newsroom (season 1 is reviewed here!), I am just as excited as other Aaron Sorkin fans to be a fan of the writing of Aaron Sorkin. However, unlike a large contingent of Sorkin fans, I’ve paid enough attention to his works to realize that Sorkin is a master recycler. He reuses character arcs, specific lines and conditions (just as in House, M.D. it’s never lupis, but lupis is always brought up as a potential diagnosis for a condition, it seems almost no one in the Sorkinverse has a baby without preeclampsia complicating the pregnancy). So, as excited as I was for the return of The Newsroom, I was actually more psyched to go backward in Sorkin’s career. To that end, I took in Malice, the 1993 thriller written by Sorkin that was his next project following his breakout hit A Few Good Men. While I’ve yet to re-watch and review A Few Good Men, until today I had never seen Malice, though one of my friends in high school was obsessed with the movie.

And, having seen Malice now, I see why the film is usually overlooked by Sorkin’s fans as being essential to his pantheon. Malice is a crime drama or thriller that progresses from a medical drama to a legal conflict and back to a character-centered mystery. Unfortunately, most of Malice lacks the spark and zest of all of his other works. The acting is fair at best (though Bebe Neuwirth is characteristically wonderful and it is fun to see a young Gwyneth Paltrow in a bit role), the characters are hardly interesting and it lacks truly memorable quotes. Fans of Sorkin’s other works will instantly recognize one of the early quotes in the film which he later recycled, but otherwise the movie is lacking in distinctive and fresh dialogue. The “I am god” speech is no “You can’t handle the truth!” That said, Malice has the benefit of being truly different from his other works.

Within nine hours of arriving in Massachusetts, Dr. Jed Hill saves the life of a college student who was brutally assaulted. Hill encounters Andy Safian, a college professor who married his favorite student, Tracy, years prior. Hill and Safian went to high school together and when a $13,000 plumbing bill is assessed against their house, Andy and Tracy reluctantly rent out their third floor to Hill. Tracy is quickly annoyed by both Andy’s overprotective nature and Hill’s womanizing with different women in the room above their head. When one of Andy’s students ends up as the victim of the serial rapist and is killed, Andy is a suspect. His old friend, Detective Dana Harris, quickly rules Andy out as a suspect, but while that is happening, Tracy’s chronic abdominal pain leads to her collapse.

Tracy, as it turns out, has a necrotic ovary and Dr. Hill is on call to perform surgery. Hill removes the necrotic ovary and he makes the decision to remove her other ovary on the belief that it is diseased as well. When the pathology on the other ovary comes back, it turns out it was healthy and Tracy – who long wanted children – is devastated. As Tracy goes litigious on Dr. Hill, Andy gets evidence that the fetus removed during Tracy’s surgery was not his, he goes on a personal mission to find out who was sleeping with his wife and, in the process, uncovers a conspiracy that challenges all he knows about the love of his life.

Dr. Jed Hill is an interesting enough villain, though he is presented with a pragmatism and a weird professional ethic that make it possible to care about him. His motivations are interesting enough, though how he and the film’s primary antagonist are truly connected is not made plausibly clear. Even the main antagonist in Malice includes enough backstory so their motivation makes sense, even if it does not make the film better.

One of the detractions to Malice is the acting. Malice is led on the acting front by Alec Baldwin, who is fine but completely unsurprising as the arrogant Dr. Hill, followed by Nicole Kidman and Bill Pullman. Kidman travels through Malice looking like she is trying to remember not to speak with an accent (which she pulls off) and Bill Pullman is just stiff. In fact, Pullman is so stiff that even though director Harold Becker utilizes him in a similar niche to Jeff Daniels’ Will McAvoy and this is an Aaron Sorkin work, never once did I think Pullman could have been considered for the role in The Newsroom. Pullman and Kidman have no on-screen chemistry (he has more chemistry with the subtle relation he has on-screen with Bebe Neuwirth) and Alec Baldwin does not even tap into the full depth of his charm to make Hill a plausible womanizer. The result is that most of the acting in Malice fails to raise the limp writing into something magnetic or engaging.

Ironically, it is Bebe Neuwirth who steals her scenes. Her character of Detective Harris is running around the whole movie working on the serial rapist case (which, as it turns out, is only a tangent in Malice and is not meaningfully resolved) and when she pops up, Neuwirth presents the character as efficient, but in touch with her very human emotions (a very nice change from her popular character Lilith from Cheers and Frasier). Neuwirth plays the role of the determined detective very well and her presentation is so strong that it is almost enough to make the viewer lament that the plotline that seems to be the a-plot at the film’s outset is not the point of the movie.

In the end, Malice is an unremarkable “thriller” that is low on thrills. The film develops, but it is populated by unsympathetic characters who are not presented in a captivating way. In other words, Malice is very much the exception to the rule of Aaron Sorkin’s works.

For other works with Bill Pullman, please visit my reviews of:
Scary Movie 4
The Grudge
Independence Day


For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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