Archive for Thursday, October 17, 2002

Abandon’ leaves audience in the dark

PG-13 *1/2

October 17, 2002

There's a scene in "Abandon" where a group of Ivy League college kids enter a party and participate in a game of speed chess in which the contestants must take shots of vodka between moves.

In most other campus settings, students would be playing quarters with pitchers of Bud Light. Whatever the intellectual pretensions of this gang may be, they're still just seeking another lame excuse to get drunk.

The movie is guilty of the same mentality.

This gloomy "psychological thriller" wants to emulate Ingmar Bergman more than it does Alfred Hitchcock. "Abandon" may hide behind an art-house facade, yet it's really just a standard Hollywood slasher minus the blood. Perhaps a more fitting title for the film would be "Urbane Legends."

TV idol Katie Holmes stars as Katie, a collegiate overachiever trying to finish her thesis and land a job at a prestigious firm. So far she's been able to hold everything together it doesn't hurt that she's gorgeous and popular.

As one of her envious schoolmates describes, "Guys are drawn to her like bugs to a bug lamp."

One such guy is Embry (Charlie Hunnam), a wealthy young composer who seduced Katie when she was a sophomore. However, Embry went missing two years ago without a trace after the conclusion of a performance. While theories abound that the trust-fund orphan left the country on a soul-searching trek of discovery, the police believe him to be dead.

A detective who is a recovering alcoholic (Benjamin Bratt) gets put on the case and can't help but be charmed by Katie. As she juggles this blossoming relationship with the rest of her responsibilities, she begins to discover clues that the enigmatic Embry may have returned.

"Abandon" is an example of how everything can look fine on paper when going into a production, but the outcome is never a guarantee. The film has some genuine star power (Holmes and Bratt), a charismatic newcomer (Hunnam), some reliable character actors (Zooey Deschanel, Fred Ward) and a writer/director with great promise ("Traffic" screenwriter Stephen Gaghan).

All of these elements add up to an equation that simply doesn't work out.

The first person to blame is Gaghan. The Oscar-winning writer makes his directorial debut on "Abandon" and manages to bungle the opportunity. Part of the problem is that he's so clearly in love with the twisty revelations of the screenplay that he forgets to include enough action, thrills or humor to get the viewer from point A to point C. This is a movie where the exposition never seems to end and the story never seems to begin.

Gaghan's technical choices don't help matters, either. There is enough annoying music (wispy piano tinklings) and camera work (jittery hand-held shots, seizure-inducing strobe lights) to be a persistent distraction. Then there are slow-motion images inserted of Holmes and Hunnam rolling in a meadow of flowers that seem more appropriate for a feminine hygiene commercial.

All this bric-a-brac erodes some good performances by an appealing cast.

A veteran of inspired films such as "Wonder Boys" and "Go," Holmes does a credible job of playing a type-A perfectionist. (At one point, she walks into a room she's never been in and immediately straightens a picture that is hanging crooked.) The star imbues the character with an edgy awareness that she may be collapsing from the emotional stress of her lifestyle. It's hard to tell if this fallout is from Embry going M.I.A. or something deeper in her psyche.

Holmes and the other actors keep the film watchable, they just can't prevent it from being boring.

Maybe a few shots of vodka might help.

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