With 'Malice,' a thriller stays on track through its indirection


Rumor has it the studio had a great deal of difficulty comin up with a trailer for "Malice." And you can see why: The movie has too many elements to fit into the 2-minute, hyper-dramatized, foreshortened form of the preview. But . . . that's not bad. That's good.

Because that gets at "Malice's" cardinal and most welcome virtue: At no time do you know where it's going but when it gets there, you realize it could have gone no other place. In fact it's an astonishment: a dense, vivid and suspenseful thriller that feels wholly fresh and that restores a value missing from American movies since at least "Body Heat" of 12 years past -- cleverness.

"Malice" feels as if it was hatched by a couple of ticked-off, stressed-out and quasi-delirious third-year residents at Harvard medical school at the end of another 72-hour work cycle. In their overworked dementia and their system-induced cynicism, they come up with a gag to make them millions of bucks without ever having to go to the inconvenience of actually practicing medicine and that would, moreover, humiliate their tormentors, the medical establishment. I don't know if that is indeed where Aaron Sorkin and Jonas McCord came up with the story, but it has the proper mesh of intelligence, high IQ snap and utter cynicism.

Of course, we only discover the true drift of this plot late in the going, and then, to the credit of the movie, the genius of the plan is crystal clear. But we begin with the pivot point of all great scams, the goat.

Bill Pullman plays Andy Safian, dean of students at a small, private co-ed college a couple of hours outside Boston. One look at his sensitive eyes, his urgent need to empathize, his willingness to forgive and we know: This boy is meat. Fortunately, his wife, Tracy, is a formidable lioness of beauty and discipline, played by Nicole Kidman. Possibly she can save him from what lies ahead.

Who should check into his life but his old high school hero, an intensely vain surgeon named Jed Hill (Alec Baldwin). Nearly everybody loves Jed because he's brilliant and talented, but no one loves Jed quite so much as Jed. Jed gleams with solid-gold arrogance; he's an Oscar recast as a man. Jed has one slight problem: He thinks he's God. And, evidently, it was this hubris that caused him to leave a job at Massachusetts General when he was passed over for a promotion.

Tracy can't stand him; in fact the karma between them is instantaneously poisonous, as if she can sense the danger lurking behind those coldly brilliant eyes. But so infantile is Andy that he's soon enough inviting Jed to rent the upstairs, where Jed soon demonstrates his superiority by making love to half the nurses in the hospital above their heads, while Andy and Tracy, their own ardor somewhat chilled by the upstairs pyrotechnics, lie there watching the slow drift of the plaster dust from the gymnastically engaged ceiling above.

At the same time -- another strain of the story, seemingly unrelated, later a key -- there's a serial rapist about who cuts the hair off his victims. His crimes seem to be increasing in violence and reaching toward murder. Who should be the No. 1 suspect but the dean? At that point, you are to be forgiven if you have a moment of smugness. You've figured it all out. It's actually the doctor who's the serial rapist and he's framing the dean because he's secretly in love with his wife? Yes, that's what you'll think.

But not for long.

Veering off strangely, but never losing its grip, "Malice" keeps finding new and inventive sources of possibility. New suspects for a crime you're not sure even exists keep popping up, including a slimy Peter Gallagher and a drunken, if sprightly, Anne Bancroft.

Director Harold Becker has a real flair for this kind of thing. He guided the superior "Sea of Love," one of the best thrillers in the past decade. And, clearly, he has a feeling for actors, too. Baldwin is particularly oppressive: With his glinting, oily hair, basso profundo voice and burnished self-love, he's hypnotically fascinating, like a cobra with a nose job and an expensive haircut. Pullman, earnest and dithering, makes a fine goat. But the surprise is Kidman, who is both beautiful and tough and sells the role of the pivotal character brilliantly. "Malice" is a terrific, if dark, entertainment.


Starring Alec Baldwin, Nicole Kidman and Bill Pullman

Directed by Harold Becker

Released by Castle Rock

Rated R


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