Friday February 14, 1997
"Being serious," a character in "Touch" gently suggests, "doesn't mean you have to be solemn," which also sums up the sensibility of this latest film based on a novel by Elmore Leonard, the master of the wised-up fable with a touch all his own.
With a protagonist named after the Roman master of satire, "Touch" is an easygoing sendup of both organized religion and our fascination with tabloid TV. And it comes from a most unlikely source, a filmmaker whose work as a writer ("Raging Bull," "The Last Temptation of Christ") and writer-director ("American Gigolo," "The Comfort of Strangers") has been noticeably more solemn.
But Paul Schrader is a self-confessed Leonard fan, and he has been smart enough to stay out of the way of the kind of alive and lively dialogue and character-driven situations that made "Get Shorty," the last Leonard film, so successful. The result is a cynical, lightly amusing movie, one pleased smile from start to finish.
While "Touch" features Leonard's usual crew of genial grifters and infectious eccentrics, there is a difference here. At the center of things is the genuine article, a true saint named Juvenal whose touch can heal and whose presence in contemporary L.A. starts a frenzy among the less spiritually inclined.
First to get the easy money fever is Bill Hill (Christopher Walken), a nominally ordained minister who used to make a good living back in Georgia running services in front of the world's tallest illuminated cross. Temporarily relocated into the motor home and siding business, Bill is still looking for the main chance.
He thinks he's found it when he sees the mysterious Juvenal (Skeet Ulrich) restore the sight of a woman who has been blind from birth. But Juvenal proves hard to pin down, so Bill recruits Lynn Faulkner (an engaging Bridget Fonda), who once twirled a baton during his services, to infiltrate the Sacred Heart Rehabilitation Center and get on the young man's good side.
Also interested in Juvenal is August Murray, the founder of OUTRAGE (Organization Unifying Traditional Rites as God Expects), a conservative paramilitary religious organization (with uniforms modeled on the Ohio State Marching Band) that considers itself "the gray army of the Holy Ghost."
Deliciously played by Tom Arnold in the film's strongest performance, Murray has been following Juvenal's exploits since he was "the Miracle Worker of the Amazon." Likely to say things like, "Do they make a condom that protects the soul?," Murray is determined to use the young man to foster a nationwide religious revival.
The young man, who also bleeds from the wounds of the stigmata, of course, has ideas of his own, including wondering if Lynn has a boyfriend at the moment. Ulrich, who made his debut opposite Winona Ryder in last year's "Boys," is what's needed as a guileless, otherworldly presence who functions as the calm center of a growing comic hubbub.
And "Touch" takes care to surround Juvenal with all manner of sharpies, all nicely played by a smooth ensemble cast. There's Janeane Garofalo as a skeptical reporter, Gina Gershon as a TV talk-show host who claims "controversy is my oxygen," Lolita Davidovich as a topless dancer and even Paul Mazursky as a music producer who knows the Pope sold 2.5 million units only because "he toured."
Writer-director Schrader has thoughtfully parceled out the film's irresistible language to all concerned and kept the tone of the proceedings modulated rather than frenetic. "Touch" is not one of those movies that hurtles toward a slam-bang climax. A bemused gloss on the varieties of religious experience, it knows enough to take its time, making sure we enjoy ourselves along the way.
Touch, 1997. R, for some sexuality, language and a scene of violence. Lumiere International presents a Lila Cazes production, released by United Artists. Director Paul Schrader. Producers Lila Cazes, Fida Attieh. Screenplay Paul Schrader, based on the novel by Elmore Leonard. Cinematographer Ed Lachman. Editor Cara Silverman. Costumes Julie Weiss. Music David Grohl. Production design David Wasco. Art director Daniel Bradford. Set decorator Sandy Reynolds Wasco. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes. Bridget Fonda as Lynn Faulkner. Christopher Walken as Bill Hill. Skeet Ulrich as Juvenal. Tom Arnold as August Murray. Gina Gershon as Debra Lusanne. Lolita Davidovich as Antoinette. Paul Mazursky as Artie. Janeane Garofalo as Kathy Worthington.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun