Good director and cast save a convoluted screenplay
Starring: Patricia Arquette, Dermot Mulroney, Ellen DeGeneres, Mary-Louise Parker, Don Johnson, Alex Rocco, and Vincent Gallo
Screenplay: Ron Peer, Joel Cohen, and Alec Sokolow
Producers: Chris Daniel, Patrick McDarrah, Alexandra Milchan, and Joel Roodman
Director: Roland Joffé
MPAA Rating: R for sexuality, language and violence
There are times when studios need to realize that showing every plot aspect of a film in a trailer is not always the best idea. Warner Brothers (who did a bang-up job with the advertising for The Matrix) strangely decided to show everything concerning Goodbye Lover that they shouldn't have, including several plot twists that can actually ruin the movie-going experience. Not only that, but they made the film look like a cheap thrill ride, trumpeting TV star Don Johnson as one of the film's most important characters. For the first thirty minutes, he is, but the rest of the film tends to forget he was even in the film to begin with.
However, if you can forgive the studio its flaws in advertising, then you can surely forgive this film for being so obsessed with tricking the audience. There are so many twists and turns that midway through the film, we become more interested in what the next twist will be, and not who will survive and prosper. It's a pure-bred 90s "film gris," where every single character has a hidden agenda, and those that don't are usually there just for humiliation. It's the kind of film where lack of humanity and morality is embraced, while religious-types are put down as morons. One Mormon character is so adament in his belief that human beings are essentially good at heart that by the end, he is completely clueless as to what has really occurred.
Goodbye Lover begins with phone sex and ends with a Thelma & Louise-type companionship. Unfortunately, because this film is all about the twists in its plot, it's very difficult to give an overview of the plot. If you want to enjoy the film, it's best not to know going in what to expect. Thus, as my belief being that movies are mainly for entertainment purposes, I will exclude a plot summary. I will, however, give a summary of the characters the film packs into its running time. First and foremost is Sandra Dunmore (Patricia Arquette), the platinum blond wife of Jake Dunmore (Dermot Mulroney), who is the brother of Ben Dunmore (Don Johnson), who is having an affair with Sandra (don't worry... this is not a surprise, since it's the first thing you see). Ben's assistant is Peggy Blaine (Mary-Louise Parker), who secretly lusts after her boss. Thrown into the mix is Sgt. Rita Pompano (Ellen DeGeneres) and her partner in crime Detective Crowley (Alex Rocco). To keep the story short, let's just say that every single character gets involved with someone else during the film.
This is one of those films, like The Usual Suspects and Wild Things, where the plot twists are intregal pieces of the plot. Here, they become the plot itself, as we the audience try desperately to figure out what plot twist will come around next. For many films, this type of storytelling would make the film completely worthless, but here, thanks to skillful direction, we feel immersed in a world where plot twists and hidden agendas are the usual thing. Any character who doesn't have a hidden agenda is usually one for mocking, such as Detective Crowley who is a conservative Mormon. Crowley is oblivious to the world around him, making jokes about the corruption of our world. His partner, Sgt. Pompano, is cynical and aware that the world is not a nice place.
There is something downright fascinating watching human beings reduce each other to insignificant figures, to the point where killing them has no meaning except for financial gains. It's been done before (albeit better), and yet director Roland Joffe paints a dark and grim picture, with sleek and glossy buildings filled with corrupt people. His visual style looks very similar to another film noir entry earlier this year, Mel Gibson's Payback (if it weren't for the blue hue, you might even think the same director did both). But where Gibson's film lacked any amount of humanity, Goodbye Lover plays around with our expectations. Something tells me writers Ron Peer, Alec Sokolow, and Joel Cohen watched and admired the Coen brothers' Fargo, which also has a female detective who eats too much walk in halfway through the plot. DeGeneres' Pompano acts almost identical to Marge Gundersen, strutting around in ugly clothes, surveying murders with a seen-it-all type attitude. It is her character that saves the film from becoming an overwrought exercise in inhumanity.
What does hinder Goodbye Lover from achieving a grander sense of moviemaking is the plot itself. Certainly, one must expect that plot twists be in abundance when dealing with double-crossers, but the writers make those plot twists the sole purpose of being. There is no real plot, essentially. It's just one plot twist connected to another in a vast array of confusion. We the audience become aware of the filmmakers pulling us around, and we are disconnected from the experience. We aren't allowed to connect with the characters, because we aren't sure whether or not we should trust them. By the end, the only ones we can trust are the same ones that we want to laugh at.
Thankfully, the comedy that does work works very well. There are moments that scream out sitcom, such as a scene as Pompano eats a corndog while listening to a "sad" story from Sandra Dunmore. Her lack of emotion seems to be inspired by Seinfeld rather than Fargo. In fact, Pompano is the most comedic figure in the film, cracking jokes whenever she can. DeGeneres' comedic skills are more than suited for the role, and she delivers her lines with the sort of brilliance that we expect from the actress. We saw her previously this year in the romantic comedy EdTV, which also aptly displayed her talents. She is quickly on her way to becoming the female version of David Spade (if not already surpassing him).
While DeGeneres does steal every single scene she is in, the rest of the cast is just as talented to keep up. Patricia Arquette is absolutely gorgeous in her platinum blond haircut (especially with the silver suit she wears midway through the film). Arquette makes us cheer for her, hoping that she might get away with her evil plot. It's the same type of character that made The Last Seduction so brilliant. Arquette is more than up to the task of leading the cast. Dermot Mulroney isn't nearly as talented, drawing out his welcome far too soon. A more charismatic actor might have held our attention longer. Surprisingly, the self-obsessed Don Johnson does a very good job, playing a sleazy, no-good cheater with a lot of money. Johnson's ability to go from insanely mean-spirited to caring and sensitive is at once believable and scary. Mary-Louise Parker is hypnotic in a role that seems specially designed just for her. While Parker doesn't share as much screen time as her fellow stars, she more than makes up for it with her enchanting alure. Alex Rocco is good as Pompano's dimwitted partner, despite having to overcome the character's obvious stupidity. But when DeGeneres and Arquette are on screen, watch for the sparks to fly.
Roland Joffé is one of those off-and-on directors, producing a good film and then a bad one. He directed The Mission, a beautiful film starring Robert De Niro, and later directed the poor remake of The Scarlet Letter (yes, the one starring Demi Moore). Here, he is back in peak form, creating astonishing images with his camera and holding together this loose story. Joffé's skill at maintaining a mood is very strong, as witnessed here and in The Mission. The only thing he really needs is a good screenplay to direct from. Musician John Ottman (who produced the haunting The Usual Suspects score) has given this film extra depth with a very atmospheric and appropriate score. His full orchestral music creates at once a sound of trickery and beauty. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti has a magnificent background, ranging from the beauty of The Last of the Mohicans to the more suitable film noir of L.A. Confidential. He captures every building and actor here with perfection.
Goodbye Lover is rated R for sexuality, language and violence. While it certainly isn't a great piece of filmmaking (the plot is a big distraction), there is something of merit here. Joffé's skill makes up for some of the faults, while the cast performs remarkably well together. The stylized feel leaves the viewer feeling good, despite having to sit through two hours of backstabbing double-crossers who double-cross those they are double-crossing. Goodbye Lover takes you on a wild ride through the darker sides of humanity and laughs at you while you are there. It's a shame it has been done before and better.
**1/2 out of ****
Reviews by Boyd Petrie