Wednesday April 3, 1996
Chazz Palminteri says in the production notes for "Faithful," a Paul Mazursky movie adapted from Palminteri's play, that he wrote the story after his semiautobiographical "A Bronx Tale" to show a side of him that is sensitive to women. The big lug.
"Faithful" is essentially a two-character black comedy about a woman's relationship with the man hired by her husband to kill her. What it is sensitive to is mob hit men.
Palminteri may have wanted "Faithful" to be a woman's story, and for women indulging revenge fantasies about their philandering husbands, the movie has its dark pleasures. Cher has a grand time attempting to seduce her captor and cut a deal with him to turn the gun on his client. But if Palminteri's intention is to soften his tough-guy image, to let a little of his estrogen show through, he should consider playing someone who isn't terrorizing women.
Tony, the contract killer of "Faithful," is closer to the hit man Palminteri played in "Bullets Over Broadway" than to his thug lawyer in "Jade" or his abusive schoolmaster in "Diabolique." Tony has killed many people, looked them right in the eye as he released their souls, but it was all business, and it's not as if he has no conscience. He's discussed his work with his therapist.
Effective black comedy always involves a deft balancing act, in this case between menace and humor. But the balance is way off in "Faithful." The situation faced by Cher's Margaret, trapped in her own home by a man taunting her with imminent death, is so intense that the comedic interludes seem to be piped in from another movie.
The first black joke of the film is Tony breaking into Margaret's upstate New York mansion and interrupting her suicide attempt. It's the night of her 20th anniversary, and the unfaithfulness of her husband Jack (an effectively smarmy Ryan O'Neal) has left her too depressed to go on. Learning that Jack wants her dead gives her reason to live, and she spends most of the rest of the movie trying to talk or seduce Tony into sparing her.
There are funny moments, or at least, funny setups. A recurring joke is Tony's phone sessions with his therapist (Mazursky), who has such a deep-seated gambling addiction that he is compelled to place a bet on the last three digits of Margaret's telephone number.
These brief comic digressions aren't much relief from the continuing menace. Cher spends most of her time bound to a chair, with Tony screaming in her face and threatening her with a gun. He apologizes in advance for having to rape her before he kills her--again, just part of the job--but there is never any doubt that he is capable of both.
With echoes of Pedro Almodovar's "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!," "Faithful" eventually begins to soften into a story about a hostage becoming emotionally attached to her captor. Margaret hasn't had sex in four months--her husband's libido has been sapped by his buxom assistant (Amber Smith)--and Tony's never had sex with anyone other than a prostitute. Imagine the possibilities, imagine the discomfort.
Palminteri is a daunting figure, as convincing a mobster as George Raft and twice the size. That's what made him inherently funny as a hit man with great theatrical intuition in "Bullets Over Broadway." He's attempting a similar thing with Tony, only his ruthlessness here is tempered with a variety of common neuroses. But the stakes are too high, the situation too realistic, for any of that to be very amusing.
That "Faithful" works at all is a tribute to Cher's own tough image. There aren't many actresses who could become a believable sexual aggressor while tied up, and she mixes her emotions well. But, pardon the bluntness, she's had so much cosmetic surgery, you can't get through a single close-up without marveling at the cadaverous mask she has become.
It might have been a better movie if Jack had put the contract out on her doctor.
Faithful, 1996. R, for language and sex-related dialogue. A Tribeca Production, presented by Price Entertainment, released by New Line. Director Paul Mazursky. Producers Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal. Cinematography Fred Murphy. Editor Nicholas C. Smith. Production design Jeffrey Townsend. Art director Caty Maxey. Set decorator Justin Scoppa Jr. Music Phillip Johnston. Costumes Hope Hanafin. Cher as Margaret. Chazz Palminteri as Tony. Ryan O'Neal as Jack. Paul Mazursky as Dr. Susskind. Amber Smith as Debbie.