Share this article

print logo


Cotton Mather might have loved it. It's God vs. the Devil at your local movie multiplex on Friday. Opening are David Duchovny and Timothy Hutton in "Playing God" and Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino in "The Devil's Advocate."

Mather wouldn't have liked the final score card, though. Even if Al Pacino chews up the scenery, the camera and the cue cards, too, as a sort of John Grisham notion of Old Scratch in "The Devil's Advocate," there's no way he's not going to win this movieland skirmish. On the worst professional day they'll ever have, a collaboration between an actor like Al Pacino and a proven filmmaker like Taylor Hackford ("An Officer and a Gentleman," "The Idolmaker," "Against All Odds," "White Nights") can't help but have it all over "Playing God."

"Playing God" is a surprisingly bad film.

Too bloody bad for David Duchovny. There was a good deal of advance interest in "Playing God" simply because it represents the first major movie theater test of the star power Duchovny has been gunnysacking as the star of TV's "The X-Files."

Sadly for Duchovny, even the mopes and flibbertigibbets in the "Friends" cast have made better movies than "Playing God," a cheesy B-movie about a defrocked junkie surgeon pressed into personal service to a vicious mob boss (played by Timothy Hutton, a talented man but a sadly marginal figure for more than a decade now).

I usually like this level of filmmaking. It's low, but to paraphrase something a famous writer once told me (he was explaining why he liked appearing in a scruffy newsprint newspaper rather than his usual slick paper precinct), at least it doesn't "condescend to" the viewer.

It gets right down there with our lower appetites, grubbier prejudices and more resentful fantasies, and mingles
freely enough with them to take them home and feed them breakfast.

Unfortunately, low horizons do not a good film make. "Playing God" features bad photography, bad music and bad gunplay. I've seen plenty of movies on TV's USA network that were better than this.

In fact, if it weren't for an interesting new actress named Angelina Jolie, a few stray wisecracks and Duchovny's marketability, I think "Playing God" would have gone straight to video and a far-from-divine time slot on cable TV. I left after an hour and 20 minutes. The movie still had 26 minutes to go.

In one scene, the medic-for-the-mob is pressed into service at a far-flung trailer inhabited by the two sleaziest criminals in the area. I can't operate on this man, says the doc, looking at the gunshot victim on the floor, swimming in blood. "He's dead."

Exactly. I can't operate on dead movies, either. At the point where I left, Duchovny was threatening to go through cold-turkey withdrawal from his synthetic heroin habit. (He likes to mix it with milk, like Ovaltine.) I took his cue and went into cold-turkey withdrawal from the movie.

Frankly, I didn't care if, in the final 26 minutes, Madonna, Michael Jordan and Bill Clinton had showed up for an orgy, with Fergie serving tea in a maid's uniform. I decided the night sky was better to look at (a beautiful night, Tuesday).

It's like this: The doc lost his license when he operated on a patient with uppers and downers raging in his system. The patient died and so, at that point, did his professional career.

One night, while scoring some synthetic heroin at his favorite club, he saves the life of a sudden gunshot victim and attracts the attention of the local mob big shot (Hutton).

It seems the mob boss is in the middle of a drug war with some Estonian newcomers, and with all the bullet-riddled bodies piling up, he can use an exiled surgeon on his payroll to plug up stray holes and revive friends and well-informed foes alike.

The doc's choice, he tells us in a clunky and persistent voice-over ("Red Shoe Diaries," anyone?), is to be a failure in heaven or a star in hell. But then, he observes in the voice of the would-be cynic, hell doesn't always look like hell.

In this movie it does, unfortunately, which is why others trapped inside it may be similarly inspired to hotfoot away from it.

All of the mob war stuff is extremely tedious. (TV does it better; much better.) There's almost nothing to hang on to except Duchovny's proven way with a wisecrack.

That's why I still have hopes for the fellow despite this. His flat, ironed-out ironies, it turns out, need special handling. He's potentially a very funny comic actor, but getting there in major films is going to take care and a lot of it.

If you look at the theatrical movie record of most of current TV's bigger stars -- the "Friends" bunch, George Clooney, David Caruso, Michael J. Fox, Jimmy Smits, Fran Drescher -- it's completely uninspiring at best, and for good reasons, I think.

I don't think the problem is their bad taste in movie projects, but rather their problems fitting the shooting schedules of good movies into the series hiatus periods that represent their only windows of opportunity. And when they get to the movie set, they're either tired or, as hard-working as they are, spoiled rotten by TV production sets that revolve around their every hangnail. Their understanding of their own talent and/or luminosity (Drescher, Caruso) is usually unrealistic.

By and large, they all look a little sad and lost and out of their league on screens 20 feet high.

It's too bad and maybe more than that. A lot of them, I think -- Caruso, Smits, Clooney, Lisa Kudrow, Jennifer Anniston -- have major potential.

Certainly Duchovny does. All he needs to do now is stop chasing after false gods.

Review Playing God Rating:* 1/2 David Duchovny is a drug-addicted surgeon working for mob boss Timothy Hutton. directed by Andy wilson. Rated R, opening friday in area theaters.

There are no comments - be the first to comment