The script for 88 Minutes should never have been filmed. It’s a cretinous, slovenly, and slack document as shot full of holes as a paper target at a gun range. And yet John Avnet, primarily a producer and only rarely a director, saw something in it, and actually came up with a point of view on the material. That must be how he seduced Al Pacino; that, and the actor must have wanted to play a young man’s role one last time.
Jack Graham, Pacino’s character, is a wealthy and powerful forensic psychologist, who has made a career out of giving expert testimony that puts serial killers away. Yes, this is another serial killer movie, and you should steel yourself for a scene that somehow manages to be sadistic and misogynistic despite the fact that it’s directed like a B-minus ’70s slasher flick. Anyhow, Jack also teaches college, and his classroom is filled with beautiful, tall young things who bat eyelashes at him like they’re in an Indiana Jones movie.
In fact, Jack’s workplace is filled with even more beautiful, tall, young things; and last night, he went home with a beautiful, tall young thing he picked up at the bar (notice that her naked stretch is the exact position she’ll wind up in when she’s dead, several reels later – one more paranoid detail). And this is Avnet’s approach, realized at the level of casting. It’s a natural that 88 Minutes should be claustrophobic and paranoiac; Jack’s vaunted ability to concentrate starts coming apart when he gets a cell phone call warning him that he will die in the titular time frame. But what works is Avnet’s gloss: Jack is a womanizer and commitment-phobe (Pacino’s age actually abets this read). All those women – including even the beautiful, tall, young extras, whom Jack bumps into, and you can tell by their faces he’s slept with them – begin to fuse into one woman, a generalized nemesis of femenine retribution.
This was exactly Stanley Kubrick’s approach in the film Eyes Wide Shut . It worked within Kubrick’s dream-like conception; and it almost works for Avnet, because paranoia is another kind of dream, an irrational, walking nightmare. But ultimately, that promising subtext isn’t enough to compensate for the whoppers we are asked to swallow.
We must believe that the killer can tap into Jack’s cell phone mid-call. That he, the killer (or, more likely, she) somehow has the number when Jack borrows somebody else’s phone. The killer must predict Jack’s every move in order to leave menacing countdown messages on his car, on his classroom overhead projector, etc. She blows up a car – not even on the timeline – just so we’ll have a money shot for the trailer. Jack is wanted by the police, principally Bill Forsyth, for the mounting murders; but they let him run around Seattle like he owns the place, in a cab that the cabbie lets him drive for a hundred bucks! And the movie just keeps taking advantage of you, until you will either cry “uncle” or walk out.
Look, David Fincher’s paranoid thriller The Game was just as outrageous; and it might even be the model here (Deborah Kara Unger is in both films). But that film was directed with detail and finesse, and shot in thick, black hues that swallow the world whole. It’s patently ridiculous, of course, but fascinatingly patently ridiculous. Avnet, on the other hand, is not just a hack, but a rusty hack. How many high-angle shots of Jack running do we need, especially since we know Pacino couldn’t possibly keep it up? How many times are we expected to sit like restless children while Jack takes yet another phone call?
My favorite moment of startling incompetence involves Amy Brennenman’s character. She sees a dead body, then has a talk with Jack. Some genius in the editing room decided she didn’t react to the body enough, so they just layered on dubbed audio of her reaction. Like so much of this twelve care pileup, that was not a way to go.
Reviewing 88 Minutes for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.