US / 88 minutes / color / Amblin, Brandman, Planet, Turner, TNT Dir: Bruno Barreto Pr: Donald P. Borchers Scr: Keith Reddin Cine: Declan Quinn Cast: Eric Stoltz, Jennifer Connelly, Dermot Mulroney, Dennis Hopper, Harris Yulin, Vincent Price, William H. Macy, Bradford Dillman, Joanna Miles, Katherine LaNasa, Keith Reddin, Gail Neely, Felicity Huffman, Ross Leon, John Capodice, Hawthorne James, Paul Teschke, Arthur Eckdahl, Issac Clay, Donald Craig, Kurt Fuller, Richard Grant.
After having finished lunch with his old friend Reggie Shaw (Price) at the Arts Club on Gramercy Square, successful novelist Austin Blair (Hopper) is gunned down on the sidewalk by rich kid Elliot Burgess (Mulroney), who then kills himself. The editor of the New York Globe, Keneally (Yulin), gives scruple-free reporter David Leader (Stoltz) the task of investigating the story.
At first David doesn’t get too far, because the rich Burgess family is circling its wagons. Dad (Dillman) is a powerful corporate lawyer but gives the impression of being a wheeler-dealer in the Mitt Romney style; Mom (Miles) lives in her own little cocoon; while Elliot’s sister Emma (Connelly), despite seeming barely out of high school, is an enigmatic figure of great allure. David, who is entirely self-absorbed, has a habit of using his own allure to exploit women of all ages and who treats his current girlfriend Hannah (LaNasa) atrociously—when she’s finally had enough and dumps him, his only regret seems to be that now there’s no one to cook his meals—regards the fresh-faced Emma not just as a possible route to his story but also as, potentially, another notch on his belt.
Trouble is, she wants nothing to do with him.
David’s first sight of Emma (Jennifer Connelly).
Hannah (Katherine LaNasa) tries unsuccessfully to get David to relateto her.
From the Burgess family maid, Jean (Neely), David discovers that Elliot was always passionately defensive of sister Emma and used to have lots of fights with his father on her behalf. From Emma’s old schoolfriend Annie Hodges (Huffman) he learns that Emma used to have a reputation as a cocktease and gains dark hints about Emma’s private life. When David’s wimpish Globe colleague Simon (Reddin, who also wrote this piece) reads Blair’s latest (and final) novel, A Class of Their Own, he reports that much of it seems to be about the poor-little-rich-girl daughter of cold and distant parents who, in classic attention-seeking behavior, does the drugs, sinks the booze, and sleeps around wildly, including possibly with her own brother. Since Blair often boasted that he based his novels on real people, David starts thinking of Emma in a new light.
Editor Keneally (Harris Yulin) tries to brief his prima donna reporter David (Eric Stoltz).
But then someone starts delivering to the Globe office, for David’s attention, audiocassette tapes that Elliot recorded describing, not just his desire to defend his family and his sister from the scurrilous book that Blair published, but also his belief that Blair has set detectives on his trail, has planted a beautiful young woman in the window opposite to spy on him and inflame his lust, and much more besides.
Elliot (Dermot Mulroney) dictates one of the tapes that he believes will set the record straight.
We see a lot of what was going on with Elliot in the form of very well integrated flashbacks; we also see how his attempts to communicate his suspicions to the mayor’s office and even to the Daily Globe newsroom come to nothing, because everyone assumes he’s a spoiled-brat nutter. There are some nice moments when the cast of our present-day narrative—such as David and his intrepid drinking buddy Booth (Macy), who works for another newspaper—almost but not quite interact with Elliot in the flashbacks. There’s also a scene in which Elliot tries to explain to David’s colleague Simon that he has a story to tell and Simon simply bins his contact details.
Booth (William H. Macy) caught in a rare moment of sobriety.
David believes that he can string his story together along the theme of “Vengeance is at the heart of justice.” For justice to be done, he proposes, it’s not enough that someone be sent away to pay for their crimes: they must be executed. Much later, in one of the flashbacks, Elliot uses exactly the same phrase. Interestingly, Emma, who hears this and has more than an inkling of what he plans, doesn’t actually stop him.
A flashbacked near-encounter between the self-absorbed David (Eric Stoltz, left) and the alienated Elliot (Dermot Mulroney).
From Wilson (Craig), the sleazebag manager of an exclusive country club to which the Burgesses belong, David learns enough to guess that Emma was sleeping with Blair. It seems that Blair discovered the Burgess family’s sordid little secrets during the course of pillow talk—or, as Blair might call it, research. When David presents this to her, she obviously wants to end the conversation. It’s at that point that we realize how scummy he truly is. He tells her she’d better keep talking to him, “Otherwise, who knows what I’ll write about your family?” And then there’s this exchange:
Emma: “You can’t prove anything.”
David: “I don’t have to. I’m not a lawyer. I’m a reporter. I work for a newspaper. You’re guilty until proven innocent. All I have to do is say it and it’s true.”
Burgess Senior wants to use the full might of his law firm to silence the dreadful stories coming out of the Globe, but Emma has a far better idea. David succumbs to the lure of what I gather used to be called a threepenny upright in an alley near his apartment; afterwards he gets what might appear to be a full florin’s worth back in his home. They seem to become an item, although he’s disturbed one morning when she sleepily says: “Come back to bed, Elliot.”
The plot starts falling apart quite a lot toward the end (for example, would gnarled journalist David really ditch the story just because he’s getting laid like never before?), but up until its closing minutes this is a neonoir with far more to like than to dislike. The production standards, notably Quinn’s cinematography, are very well up to theatrical standards, and the performances are as fine as you’d expect from an all-star cast like this. (That said, most of the all-star cast are delivering only very minor roles, and some are on screen for scant seconds. For example, Hopper’s character is fairly central yet—although I’ve not counted—I’d be surprised if he has more than about a minute’s screen time.)
Emma (Jennifer Connelly) sees only herself in the mirror.
Elliot (Dermot Mulroney) practices assassination in the mirror. Like Emma he can see no one else.
So what of the leads? Macy is wonderful as always; he’s one of our best living actors. (A few years after this movie, he’d marry Huffman; they have two children together.) Mulroney, given a part in which his most effective way to depict the character is to deploy as little acting as possible, is perfect for the role; he’d come into his own in romantic-comedy movies like The Wedding Date (2005). Connelly is superb as the jail-baity Emma, fully conscious of her power over men who might think of her as merely an immediately post-adolescent girl without a mind of her own; David learns better, for sure. Connelly’s a far cry here from a very different Emma whom she later played—the chaste and loyal Emma Darwin in Creation (2009), that extraordinarily beautiful movie about the philosophical struggles of Charles Darwin, played by her by then real-life husband Paul Bettany.
David (Eric Stoltz), looking as cool as only a borderline sociopath can.
But the real eye-opener is Stoltz, as the quite ruthless journalist. Playing directly against any Mr. Nice Guy image he might have—at first we feel almost as if he’s auditioning for the part of Paul Drake Jr—he progressively shows the sociopathy that lies beneath the superficial attractiveness of his character. Early on, when he’s blithely telling Hannah that she means nothing to him, almost reveling in the pain he might be causing her, it’s difficult to reconcile his outward good nature with the way he’s behaving. Later we realize that the inner David is the real one; it’s the outward persona that’s a construct.
On Amazon.com: The Heart of Justice [DVD]