Saturday, September 27, 2008

88 Minutes

Director: Jon Avnet
Starring: Al Pacino, Benjamin McKenzie, Alicia Witt, Leelee Sobieski, Deborah Kara Unger, Amy Brenneman, Neal McDonough

Running Time: 110 min.

Rating: R

*** (out of ****)

Agent: Al, I’ve got this part you’ve gotta to take.

Pacino: I’m listening.

Agent: It’s a real-time thriller called
88 Minutes. You play a forensic psychologist with only 88 minutes to live.

Pacino: So the film’s 88 minutes?

Agent: No, actually it’s 110.

Pacino: Who’s in it?

Agent: So far, just that kid from
The O.C.

Pacino: I loved that show!

Agent: They promised me your hair will look great. Plus, it’s full of hot, young women lusting after your character.

Pacino: HOO-HA! Who’s the director?

Agent: Jon Avnet.

Pacino: Doesn’t ring a bell.

Agent: You know, the guy who directed Up Close and Personal.

Pacino: I’m in.

According to Rotten Tomatoes, 6% of critics in the nation gave the thriller 88 Minutes a positive review. So I guess now is the time for me to extend my heartfelt condolences to the 94% who were unable to share in the joyous, gut-busting experience I had watching this film. But most of all I'm sad that they can't partake in my 88 Minutes drinking game in which I take a shot whenever Dr. Jack Gramm’s cell phone rings, each scene in which his hair doesn’t move, his students leer at him creepily, or when he dances to 50 Cent in clubs with women young enough to be his granddaughter. Everyone warned me in advance that I‘d hate this film but when I saw the director attached was Jon Avnet I just couldn’t resist. Even if it's bad at least I know he won't phone it in.

You see, unlike other Hollywood hacks like Gregory Hoblit who play it straight and torture the audience, Avnet possesses something rare among pedestrian filmmakers these days: a genuine sense of fun. Fully aware of the possibility the film could be awful I was hoping the man behind the funniest drama I’ve ever seen, Up Close and Personal, was capable of making a thriller so bad that it’s great. He did, but Avnet also goes a step further and reaches levels of unintentional hilarity I thought would be unattainable even for him. I could lie to you, go along with the consensus and bash the film, but in doing that I’d deny that I loved watching it and was on the edge of my seat. Its many problems actually work in its favor and the movie would be far worse off without them. They help create an endlessly entertaining and often times hilarious thrill ride that in the hands of another director would have been a bore.

I’d accept any argument against the film except one stating that those involved in the making of it in any way sleepwalked their way through, especially Pacino. If anything, almost TOO MUCH EFFORT was poured into this in an admirable attempt to make an over-the-top crowd pleaser. If only every thriller could have that problem. It takes talent to make a great bad movie and it’s a skill Avnet seems to have mastered. This could be considered the Up Close and Personal of mystery/suspense thrillers You can actually tell the same filmmaker made both, which is kind of frightening. But, hey, if critics can recommend something like last years silly legal thriller Fracture, then I can recommend this with a relatively clear conscience.

In 1997 the expert testimony of world-renowned F.B.I. forensic psychologist and college professor Dr. Jack Gramm (Pacino) helped put away madman Jack Forster (Neil "Direct-To-DVD" McDonough) for the brutal, Hostel-style murder of a young woman. 8 years later, just as Forster’s scheduled execution by lethal injection is on the horizon, a string of copycat murders are starting up that call his conviction and Gramm’s controversial testimony into question. Is Forster actually innocent or just staging an elaborate plot from behind bars? After one of party animal Gramm’s one night stands turns up dead and evidence points to him as a suspect, he receives a phone call from an ominous voice informing him he has only 88 minutes to live. “TICK TOCK TICK TOCK.”
Gramm discovers this information while giving one of the most ineffective college lectures in university history in which he’s interrupted with about 75,000 cell phone calls within a two-minute period while sprinting up and down the stairs looking for suspects… in his own class! And there are plenty of them. Like his T.A. (which could stand for something other than “Teaching Assistant”) Kim (Alicia Witt) who not so secretly harbors a schoolgirl crush on him, his star student Lauren (welcome back Leelee Sobieski) and the annoying Mike (Benjamin McKenzie) who’s obsessed with the Forster case and spends most of his time making outlandish, groundless allegations. He also looks an awful lot like Ryan Atwood from The O.C. But the pool of suspects isn’t just limited to Gramm’s students. There’s also the mousy university Dean (Deborah Kara Unger, hilariously cast against type) who can’t stand him and his loyal assistant, Shelly (Amy Brenneman), the only woman in the film he can't sleep with because she’s a lesbian. She’s probably a little too old for his taste anyway.

It’s a cliché to say that in a thriller like this everyone is a suspect but here EVERYONE actually is a suspect (including completely random people) as Gramm struggles to uncover the culprit in mad race to beat the clock and uncover the truth. There are so many twists and turns I have to wonder how anyone could possibly say the script was lazy. Ridiculous yes, but definitely not lazy. Given the amount of intricate detail and exposition it must have taken screenwriter Gary Scott Thompson anywhere from 25-30 years to construct it. Actually, that this only has one credited screenwriter is a shock in itself.

Ads (and the film’s title) misrepresented this as a real-time thriller similar to the 1995 Johnny Depp vehicle Nick of Time but Avnet made a wise move not going that route because there’s just too much narrative to fit in 88 minutes. It made sense to put in a prologue because many of those early details play an important role later in the film, rewarding viewers who pay attention. If the film has one major flaw it’s that we’re so distracted by the bizarre goings on and Gramm’s creepy interactions with his students that it’s almost easy to forget that minutes are ticking away on his life.

While the “real time” aspect isn’t exactly exploited as well as it could be and some dramatic tension is lost, Avnet more than makes up for it with barrels of high-octane fun. And I have to be honest and say that for the first time in a while watching a thriller I had literally no idea who the killer would be right up until the climactic scene. And what a hilariously entertaining reveal it is. Avnet is smart enough to let this person really ham it up in the closing minutes. No one could watch the excitingly staged final scene and tell me Avnet and his actors didn’t go all out and give it everything they had. I was howling with laughter. It’s great to see people involved in making a movie actually know what kind of a movie they’re making for a change.

The entire supporting cast is fine, with a few even impressing. Alicia Witt proves she’s good enough to hang with Pacino delivering a lot of the script’s expository dialogue and tagging along with him for most of the film’s running length. She’s up for it, creating a sympathetic, but mysterious character. Another actress from the “Where Are They Now” file, Leelee Sobieski, delivers strong work as well in a smaller role. One of the funniest stories to come out of filming was Sobieski admitting to have developed such a huge crush on Pacino that she found it difficult to show up on set. It's important to keep this in mind in case you happen to flip on the news and see authorities dragging me from Sobieski’s property in a black wig and a glued on goatee.

Sorry, but I must have seen a different performance than everyone else because I thought Pacino was just terrific in this. While do I consider Pacino to be among our best actors I don’t have nearly the same reverence for him everyone else does and could easily name 10-20 actors whose work I enjoy more. Maybe that’s why I’m not so offended and can just laugh it off when he takes a part like this. I have a theory that the true test of how great an actor is comes when they’re handed material far below them. I can’t say Pacino elevates this silly material to high art but no one else could have played this role as well or made it as interesting as he does. And regardless of what anyone says, it looks like he’s having a blast doing it.

No, this isn’t Serpico or Dog Day Afternoon but it’s still an important entry on Pacino’s résumé because it proves that he can rise to occasion even when handed trash. If anything this actually increases my appreciation for him as an actor because I had no idea he was capable of slumming it like this. And let’s be honest, Pacino has earned the right to do this film. At this point in his career, he probably realizes the window of opportunity to take fun roles like this may be closing so he’s taking advantage of it. Good for him. Despite my jokes about his age I don’t think he seems too old for the part and it’s great to see an actor of his caliber having this much fun.

Avnet gets something out of Pacino in this that's similar to what he got out of Robert Redford in Up Close and Personal. Avnet is a filmmaker who specializes in making glossy, mainstream pictures meant to get movie star performances out of big movie stars. There’s no shame in that. Someone has to do it, and few accomplish it with as much panache as he does. It’s a gift. If Pacino wants another Oscar, he could always appear in a Scorsese film but to have a good time in an entertaining genre flick he picked the right guy.
The only way I know how to defend this picture is not on the basis of quality, but on the grounds that it’s an absolute hoot and I would recommend everyone see it, if only just to say they saw it. It’s completely cheeseball and kind of reminds me of those suspense thrillers from the mid-90’s like Copycat, except with the goofiness factor ratcheted up a few notches. It scares me to think what Avnet could do with BOTH Pacino and Robert DeNiro in the recently released A Righteous Kill, a movie I previously had zero interest in seeing. My stance on that has changed a little now. You can tell me all day how bad this movie is. “And your point is?” would be my response. I’m always in need of some laughs and with 88 Minutes Jon Avnet tops himself again, proving that it’s still possible to make a dumb but enjoyable thriller.


JD said...

It is trash. That is all it is and it's pretty bad.
And while this is not as bad for Two For The Money. It just isn't even great trash.
You would never guess that Pacino was a great actor at one while watching the films he has made this decade.

Great review.

thebonebreaker said...

Nice Review Jeremy!

I think I will go ahead and add this one to my Netflix Queue - like you said, just to be able to say that I saw it! :-)

Mitch Emerson said...

Now I gotta see this, lol!