A shrill, underhanded, neighbor-from-hell thriller, Arlington Road seems genuinely unable to distinguish between topicality and exploitation. The Unabomber and Oklahoma City are distinctly felt presences, but primal fears have no other purpose here than to fuel generic paranoia, which MTV-reared director Mark Pellington methodically strips of meaning, cranking it up to a pitch at which morality, ideology, and logic become irrelevant.
Slicker and more suspect than The Siege, last year’s bombs-away opportunist, Arlington Roadis both single-minded and thoughtless in its scaremongering. Jeff Bridges plays Michael Faraday, a professor of American history with a specialization in domestic terrorism. Faraday is something of a conspiracy nut (his lectures take the form of loopy, free-associative theories) and an embittered, paranoid head case, largely due to the recent death of his FBI-agent wife in a shoot-out.
Faraday really starts to lose it with the arrival of his new neighbors, the Langs (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack), whose haircuts, wardrobe, and cheery demeanor signify a profound dislocation from reality and (probably) latent homicidal impulses. Going to great lengths to confirm that Oliver Lang has been white-lying about his past, Faraday stumbles upon potentially devastating news. Of course, no one believes him; Hope Davis plays Faraday’s girlfriend, a role that consists exclusively of being skeptical and whiny.
The mode is hysteric-Hitchcockian, the result mostly devoid of suspense. The is-he/isn’t-he game never gets off the ground—the filmmakers briefly entertain the notion that it’s all in Faraday’s head, but they’re more intent on overdrawing Lang as a psycho. You wonder if this might be a double bluff, then promptly dismiss it as too sophisticated a ploy—this is, after all, a film whose favorite scare tactic involves sneaking up on people and going boo.
As you’d expect, Arlington Road has been directed and edited with sweaty palms and an attention deficit, but the real culprit is Ehren Kreuger’s screenplay, which won some fancy fellowship and is a steaming pile of nonsense. Kreuger’s model is The Parallax View,down to the sucker-punch ending, which in this case hinges on an outrageous series of coincidences; worse, he clutters the narrative with crude, expository passages—most absurdly, a scene in which a distraught Faraday takes his students on a field trip to the scene of his wife’s death. Boxed into one credibility-defying situation after another, the actors somehow keep pace, scaling new, ugly heights of hysteria—paradoxically, their commitment to the material may be what hurts the film most.
No less tunnel-visioned than Arlington Road but not nearly as, um, overbaked, American Pie returns the teen movie to the uncomplicated glory days of Porky’s and Losin’ It. Which,in the scheme of things, is preferable to the terminal blandness of Varsity Blues and She’s All That. Four high-school seniors—shy jock, creepy geek, luckless schmuck, and another one I can’t remember much about—resolve to be rid of their virginity by prom night. Epic, mostly public, humiliation ensues, some of it very funny, all of it very stupid and in terrible taste.
Director Paul Weitz (who cowrote Antz) never quite pulls off the balancing act of There’s Something About Mary, in which the Farrellys managed to be goofy and sweet and gross all at once. American Pie is best when it’s disgusting, which, admittedly, is a lot of the time. The target demographic of young, horny males (or those who empathize, whoever they may be) is guaranteed to lap this up, and I fear to think of the fate that now awaits various baked goods at fraternities around the country.