At this point, Pacino’s just running from a Thalberg Award
The tawdry thriller has become a cottage industry for slumming movie stars looking either for a quick buck or a way to keep their profile public in between worthier projects. The films don’t try very hard, but then no one seeking them out is looking for quality, either. Some films are steak, but sometimes a greasy cheeseburger is more appetizing.
88 Minutes is overcooked genre trash, though good looking genre trash thanks to an overqualified supporting cast. And of course there’s Pacino, The Big Hooah, seemingly hell-bent on edging out Robert DeNiro in the great Prestige Erosion Race of the 00′s. Still, the total isn’t the sum of its parts.
The story is just window dressing for the plot. Pacino plays forensic psychiatrist (apparently such a thing exists) Jack Gramm, a teacher and therapist in the kind of gloomy, rain-polished Seattle you’ve regularly seen in films and TV since Se7en. Eleven years ago, Gramm’s testimony helped to convict serial killer Jon Forster (Neil McDonough, who’d look scary reading the phone book). But now with hours left before the execution, someone’s committing lurid sex murders identical to Forster’s method, casting doubt on his guilt and Gramm’s credibility. Worse, someone is calling Gramm and taunting him with his own murder, just minutes away (Guess how many).
So Gramm has to prevent his own murder while assuring the guilt of the serial killer he put away with the help of his students. Just to keep things simple, the students all fit archetypal psychological tropes: there’s the assistant with a crush (Alicia Witt), the rebellious student with Oedipal resentment (Benjamin McKenzie), and the eerily calm star pupil (Leelee Sobieski.) Also along for the ride are Gramm’s faithful secretary (Amy Brenneman) and his FBI colleague (William Forsythe).
Under director Jon Avnet’s control the script doesn’t come together enough to create anything really cohesive. Even despite the genre clichés and the familiarity of Pacino’s late-career screen persona (he’s middle-aged, he’s horny, he loves to party) the whole film seems to go several directions at once without settling on a mounting arc of suspense. There are flashbacks, and talky scenes of exposition, and even the hoariest of plot contrivances, the backstory delivered via radio news report -what the smartasses of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 used to call K-PLOT.
Avnet and screenwriter Gary Scott Thompson pile on the details until just getting from one set piece to another feels like plot movement. But it’s not movement so much as a lot of running around and talking on cell phones. One strange but kinky twist follows another, Pacino runs around, and then the cycle repeats. The intention is to create something head-spinning for the audience, but Avnet’s lack of focus keeps that vertigo from ever really hitting its boiling point. “Do you know how absurd that sounds?” asks Forsythe, after Gramm explains all the plot contortions and superfluous turns of events. Well, yes, by the halfway point the audience can’t help but notice.
Oddly, thanks to the cast this is never as tedious as it sounds, and in 1998 the actresses alone would have represented a white-hot task force of upcoming stars. Witt especially gives her character more depth than the script probably allowed, and Sobieski exploits her icy beauty to provoke growing if ambient suspicion. And while Forsythe’s (Things To Do In Denver While You’re Dead, American Me) mere presence used to pedigree a B-movie, he’s not given enough to do here except stand around and glower.
With a lesser star than Pacino, 88 Minutes would likely have gone straight to DVD. In fact that’s the case in Europe, while the film has languished here in the States for more than a year. It’s not fair to the film to say the audience deserves more. After years of regular appearances by similar schlock from the sex thriller ghetto, anyone who doesn’t know what to expect shouldn’t complain if their diminished expectations aren’t met.
- Michael Kabel