One could do far worse than spending a coupla days in the San Fernando Valley with the zany creations that John Herzfeld has looped together in his first film. In fact, I can think of no other reason for enduring that bleak, banal and dusty plain, except of course for the doughnut shops.
Herzfeld's story is an account of whimsical connections disguised as a thriller. It follows as the lovelorn, the burnt-out, the desperate and the violent tumble randomly through each other's lives over 48 hours, each unique in his need and agony, each painfully recognizable.
The movie begins and ends with killings and is in a way framed by violence. We watch in amusement, which rapidly transmogrifies to horror, as two professional criminals, Lee and Dosmo, pull off an exceedingly well-planned job which turns out to be the point-blank murder of a philandering husband. But Lee and Dosmo -- icy James Spader and earthy Danny Aiello -- turn out to be less brothers than antagonists, drawn from psychopathic high and comically low crime traditions. Soon they're squabbling like fatigued lovers and soon after that, Lee is trying to kill Dosmo, who has real problems: His toupee keeps flying off.
These two -- one truly dangerous and one truly ludicrous -- blow through people's lives like the hot winds in a Joan Didion essay. In that way they come to illuminate the peculiar pathologies of Southern California in a way the movie that called itself "L.A. Story" should have but didn't.
The widow, played by Teri Hatcher, awakens to find her hubby (Peter Horton) with Excedrin headache No. 15,000: the one a 9-mm bullet causes. She waves down two passing vice cops, the burnt-out Jeff Daniels and the enthusiastic Eric Stoltz, one of FTC whom wants to solve the case and one of whom wants not to be bothered.
Meanwhile, Dosmo, in panicked flight from nasty Lee, has bumbled into the lives of a snippy art dealer (the excruciatingly arch Greg Cruttwell) and his hapless assistant, Glenne Headly, and immediately Dosmo connects with Headly's character. In the other side of the story, the nasty Lee (who really drives the story) is on the ruthless track of some money owed him by his employer who cannot pay as quickly as promised. And, just to make Lee really interesting, his closest colleague is a brassy, Harlowesque gun moll played in full, pouty heat by Charlize Theron.
And there's yet a third narrative element: a suicidal film director (played by the brilliant film director Paul Mazursky, who, one hopes, is not suicidal but merely resting up), who has a chance meeting with a nurse -- Marsha Mason -- with whom he shares an instant, redemptive connection. She, it turns out, is that art dealer's sister.
Around and around it goes, and only Herzfeld knows where it will stop. Fortunately, he's as astute a plotter as he is observer of the human condition. The movie never seems to force its connections or its revelations upon us, but merely discovers them in their provocative places; in short, it doesn't seem to be working very hard, but the apparent simplicity is deceiving: There's a grand, clever and ultimately satisfying plan under all the running around and bumping into each other.
Would "2 Days in the Valley" exist without Quentin Tarantino? This is like asking if Tarantino would exist without Elmore Leonard: It has no answer, only amusing speculative potential. Still, at some level, Herzfeld, a long-time TV writer-director, is more professional than Tarantino. This makes him a little cuter, not quite as dangerous, but quite a bit more enjoyable. He never goes near any of Tarantino's edges; he wants you to like him too much, and that's hard not to do.
'2 Days in the Valley'
Starring Danny Aiello, Jeff Daniels and James Spader
Directed by John Herzfeld
Released by MGM
Rated R (violence and sex)
Sun score: ***
Pub Date: 9/27/96