Bad Habits

The ad campaign for The Minus Man is what you might call an exercise in ironic suggestibility, all sneering warnings ("Don't Bring a Dumb Date") and promises ("Running Time: All Night [In Your Head]"). It's a smug tactic-marketing a movie as a conversation piece (the tag line, in fact, is "Conversation Usually Follows")-but in this case, the cocky pose is also misleading, at glaring odds with the meditative, almost trancelike, tone of this willfully low-key serial-killer flick. Directed by Blade Runner screenwriter Hampton Fancher (and based on a 1990 novel by Lew McCreary), The Minus Man is less interesting for what it has to say about evil-namely, that it's banal/unknowable/random/everywhere-than for the microsurgical procedures it performs on genre conventions and expectations.

The murderer here is a smiling cipher, a drifter named Vann (Owen Wilson), bland, blond, agonizingly polite. (There's a hint of danger, though-is it the crooked smile? the squinty eyes? the resemblance to Sean Penn?) Vann's m.o. is unremarkable-he drives around in a pickup with a tiny flask of poisoned Amaretto. (We see only one act of physical violence, and, perhaps too obviously, it's triggered by a moment of physical intimacy.) After a summary disposal early on of a strung-out Sheryl Crow, he moves in with an unhappy suburban couple-tense, troubled Jane (Mercedes Ruehl) and good-guy-with-dark-side Doug (Brian Cox)-whose woes apparently have much to do with their absent daughter. Vann finds a job at the local post office as well as a somewhat puzzled admirer in his coworker Farrin (a well-used Janeane Garofalo, in a keen performance composed of more than the snide wisecracks typically required of her).

Vann kills-that's all we know, and all we need to know. Motivation and backstory are beside the point, though there is the vague suggestion that Vann's victims are, as he sees it, begging to be put out of their misery. Shifty and paced like a reverie, the film lodges itself inside its protagonist's head without attempting to make sense of what it discovers-case in point: Vann's imagined conversations with two detectives (Dwight Yoakam and Dennis Haysbert) and fantasies about his eventual capture. In an oddly effective use of voice-over, Fancher floods the soundtrack with abrupt bursts of Vann's drawling monotone. But the point of the stream of consciousness isn't necessarily to illuminate-the opacity of the delivery is more seductive, and arguably more significant, than the faux-profundity of the content. The same might be said of the film as a whole.

By all means bring a dumb date to Best Laid Plans, a creakily mechanical B-noir that leaves scheming lovers Alessandro Nivola and Reese Witherspoon and blowhard-chump Josh Brolin entangled in a Red Rock West?ish series of double-bluffs. (There's also an Indecent Proposal of sorts involved.) British director Mike Barker plays up the showiness of Ted Griffin's script. The film opens with a cliffhanger, then flashes back four months, fills in the details, and builds to the opening sequence, which is then replayed with the benefit of perspective. Encompassing as it does a catalogue of Amerindie bad habits, the movie works as a kind of reverse primer, a how-not-to (or a please-don't). A shortlist of offenses: said gimmicky structure, wacky cinematography (circular dolly shots especially), a villain who quotes Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, and, worst of all, a deflationary, Usual Suspects?style punch line. -Dennis Lim


THE MINUS MAN A Shooting Gallary release. Written and directed by Hampton Fancher. Opens Sept. 10 in NYC.BEST LAID PLANS A Fox Searchlight release. Directed byMike Barker. Opens Sept. 10.

 
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