News flash: New York lawyers, real estate developers and other top-feeders can be nasty characters. And they dress fabulously for funerals.
This is just one of the many messages of "The Devil's Advocate," which folds Scripture, sex and soigne interior design into an overbaked morality tale for the 21st century. There might be other movies out there that started with a reasonably clever premise only to make a preposterous -- if good-looking -- hash of it, but "The Devil's Advocate" takes the prize for this season's most perverse outing by a franchise name.
As the title character, Al Pacino tears into his role with tongue flicking and bicuspids flashing, and he actually manages to toss off some funny, well-written speeches. But consider the price of admission: 2 1/2 hours of facile sermonizing, frenzied sexuality, pulpy effects and a blank-looking Keanu Reeves struggling with a Southern accent. Dante couldn't have invented a circle like this one.
Reeves plays Kevin Lomax, a Florida defense lawyer who has never lost a case. His wife, the gorgeous, ambitious Mary Ann (Charlize Theron), repossesses cars for a living.
When Kevin is offered a job with the high-octane law firm of Milton, Chadwick, Waters in New York -- with an eight-room Fifth Avenue apartment on the park and boo-coo de bucks rolled in -- the young couple enters a world of money and luxury as sleazy as it is seductive.
After Kevin aces a couple of dicey cases, company chief John Milton (Pacino) makes an offer to his young protege ensured to make his existence heaven on earth, a living hell or, more likely, both.
Director Taylor Hackford does an alluring, if unsubtle, job of depicting Manhattan as a snake pit of lust, greed and avarice, right down to the detail of Sen. Al D'Amato at a cocktail party where names such as Donald Trump and Mort Zuckerman are dropped with impunity. (In gilded proof that truth is more vulgar than fiction, the most over-the-top set is none other than a Louis XIV-inspired penthouse owned by Trump himself.) Even boxing promoter Don King turns up for a cameo, sans horns and pitchfork.
These sorts of in-jokes are good for a laugh, and Pacino plays Milton for maximum grins. But aside from those rare moments, "The Devil's Advocate" can offer only some low-stakes suspense, nonsensical scenes of wretched excess and melodrama centered around Mary Ann's embattled ovaries. (Scenes of the Lomax marriage are so reminiscent of "Rosemary's Baby" one half expects Ruth Gordon to come bustling in for a cup of brimstone.)
No matter how much heat Pacino generates, screaming about lawyers being the "new priesthood" (say amen, somebody) and dancing like St. Vitus through his medieval apartment, Reeves remains a pillar of maddening impassivity. He can't break a sweat, even as he tries desperately to drawl out lines such as, "Whadjew dew with mah wahfe?"
Just when filmgoers are prepared to give up on the entire enterprise, the filmmakers come up with a clever structural conceit and final image, but it's too late: Hackford has gummed up the chances at some good black humor with overheated, homiletic theatrics. Pacino's gleeful performance notwithstanding, "The Devil's Advocate" descends into silly self-indulgence when it should have gone straight to hell.
'The Devil's Advocate'
Starring Al Pacino, Keanu Reeves, Charlize Theron, Judith Ivey
Directed by Taylor Hackford
Rated R (sexuality, nudity, violence and language)
Released by Warner Bros.
Sun score: * 1/2
Pub Date: 10/17/97