Friday April 20, 2001
It would be bad enough that Alex hates his job, it would be worse still that he hates his job and works for his father, but most depressing and debilitating of all is what he actually does for a living: kill people for hire.
"Panic," the story of what happens to Alex as his world starts to close in on him, is the first feature from writer-director Henry Bromell. A novelist best known for the work he's done writing and producing for television (including such series as "Chicago Hope," "Northern Exposure" and "Homicide"), Bromell's debut is stylish and assured, but it's finally too studied to get the kind of emotional heft it's looking for from its effects.
"Panic" is a film noir, but a noir of the bright, modern, sunlit variety. In fact, one of its advantages is the bracing, eye-catching visual look that cinematographer Jeffry Jur has given classic California settings.
But while the truly classic noirs had if not a naturalness at least a kind of un-self-consciousness about them, "Panic" is characterized by a deliberateness and an obvious calculation that is impressive on one level but a barrier the film has to overcome on another.
The veteran William H. Macy plays Alex, a man whose wife, Martha (Tracey Ullman), thinks he runs a small mail-order business, selling lawn ornaments and sexual aids from home. In fact, he works for his cold-eyed father, Michael (Donald Sutherland), as a hit man for hire. Dad gets the assignments, son does the work. A division of labor that has functioned well until now.
For, as Alex tells his newly hired therapist Josh (an unexpected John Ritter), lately he's not been feeling right about things. He's even considered quitting the family business, though his unsympathetic mother, Deidre (Barbara Bain), doesn't want him to even entertain the thought. "You'll break his heart," she says, Dad very much on her mind.
Making things even more confusing for Alex is that though he adores his precocious, Beck-loving 6-year-old son, Sammy (a charming David Dorfman), he's gotten increasingly attracted to a young woman he's met in the shared waiting room space at his therapist's.
That would be Sarah (Neve Campbell), a leather-pants-wearing modern girl who works in a hair salon. She likes Alex's politeness and his "sad eyes," but she is understandably less than enthralled about being the mistress of a man who is clearly never going to leave his wife.
"Panic's" story is told partially though flashbacks, which enable us to see how Martha and Alex fell in love in happier times and also how Michael insidiously molded his son for the work he always had in mind for him.
A lot of this is quite well done, but Bromell has a tendency to have too schematic an aesthetic agenda for his story: treating film noir like kabuki is not necessarily the best way to go, no matter how beautifully you do it.
Still, as the film progresses and Alex's situation gets more troubling and convoluted, as his problems increase in seriousness, "Panic" gets less mannered and does involve us more. Though too ambitious for its aims and too monotone in its delivery to really move us, this spare, unadorned film marks Bromell as a talent to watch.
Panic, 2001. R, for language and elements of violence. Released by Roxie Releasing. Director Henry Bromell. Producers Andrew Lazar, Lori Miller, Matt Cooper. Executive producer David Cooper. Screenplay Henry Bromell. Cinematographer Jeffry Jur. Editor Lynzee Klingman, Cindy Mollo. Costumes Susan Matheson. Music Brian Tyler. Production design Dan Bishop. Art director Dan Bradford. Set decorator Emma Fairlay. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes. William H. Macy as Alex. Donald Sutherland as Michael. Neve Campbell as Sarah. Tracey Ullman as Martha. Barbara Bain as Deidre. Josh as John Ritter.