Worth A Look: 50.88%
Pretty Bad: 12.28%
Total Crap: 3.51%
10 reviews, 54 user ratings
|Stir of Echoes
by Andrew Howe
A brief history of Kevin Bacon (or Show me the way to oblivion)1984 In one of the all-time worst career moves, Bacon accepts a starring role in Footloose. Some saw this modern-day fable of tappin’ feet defeating the evils of starched-shirt Christianity as a metaphor for the Saracen resistance movement during the third Crusade, but most just consigned it to the dustbin of history and went about their business. John Lithgow starred alongside Bacon in this extended advertisement for the “music” of Kenny Loggins, and to this day nobody’s forgiven either of them.
"Prime Bacon in a dog's breakfast"
1990 Bacon appears alongside the indefatigable Fred Ward in Tremors. He ends up playing second fiddle to a big worm and Pat Morita’s stunt double.
1990 Bacon appears alongside other members of the Crap Pack in Flatliners. Every character faces the cause of their deepest guilt, and for Bacon this turns out to be ragging on a fellow pupil at primary school. Many suggest that if this is the worst thing he’s ever done, it’s time to take up cocaine.
1991 Under the banner “Flatliners – Saving Bacon”, major New York film critics attend a three-day symposium to determine whether spending part of the film dead is a reasonable metaphor for his career.
1994 A couple of bright sparks with too much time on their hands invent the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game. In retrospect, it seems possible that they came to mock, not to praise.
1995 Bacon tackles a serious role in a serious film, Murder in the First. Leonard Maltin uses the words “Bacon” and “bravura performance” in the same sentence. Nobody sees it.
1996 Bacon sodomises teenagers in a juvenile detention facility in Sleepers. Some suggest that this is a metaphor for what he’s been doing to the cinema-going public all these years.
1999 Bacon finally lands a starring role in a film where he sees dead people. Unfortunately, it is released shortly after another film about someone who sees dead people. One gets an Academy Award nomination, the other gets the short end of the stick. And so it goes.
* * *
I like Kevin Bacon, really I do, but sometimes I wonder if he spends his days in the parking lot of a Hollywood studio with a sign around his neck which reads “Will work for food”. With Tremors he proved that he had the “likeable Joe” routine down pat, and Sleepers showed us that he was capable of considerably more. Unfortunately, just when he seems to be on the cusp of a new beginning, he always manages to find a script unworthy of his talents.
In Stir of Echoes (one of those catchy titles which sounds good, until you ask yourself what the hell it actually means), Bacon plays Tom Witzky, a man without a mission. He’s got a solid job, a wife who loves him, and a kid who talks to himself a lot (this used to be considered the first sign of madness, but these days we just assume they’re talking to dead people). One night at a party he lets his flaky, dope-smoking sister-in-law hypnotise him. Most budding hypnotists would be satisfied with getting the victim to stand on their head and do the Funky Chicken around the living room, but she sticks a safety pin through his hand and orders him to bleed from only one side. Before she can cut off his gonads with a meat cleaver and get him to laugh about it, he freaks out. The shade of Rod Serling stops by to intone “Some doors are best left unopened”, and Tom starts having disturbing visions.
And visions, as we know, can drive men to do crazy things. Roy Neary from Close Encounters built scale models of a mountain out of mashed potato. Jules from Pulp Fiction gave up killing nimrods. Tom settles for looking pensive and strumming his guitar, in between using his son as a ouija board and skiving off work (“Say boss, I keep seeing this dead girl around the house. OK with you I have a couple of days off?”)
While I’ve done my best to make the plot sound mildly intriguing, in reality it’s anything but. You don’t have to be Hercule Poirot to deduce the film’s conclusion by the halfway point (it’s telegraphed loud and clear), and the guilty party is David Koepp, who thought he could pass off this derivative, inert script as something worth filming (as the author of the source novel Richard Matheson should probably share the blame, though for all I know it may have been the horror genre’s answer to The Brothers Karamazov. But probably not.)
To begin with, the plot features a number of holes which all but the laziest of hacks could have bricked up if they’d had the inclination. Let us count the ways: Tom‘s son Jake spends most of the film having a good yarn with the avenging spirit, but never sees fit to ask her what the hell she wants; despite knowing full well the cause of his affliction, Tom waits a good two weeks before heading back for another hypnotism session; and, worst of all, Tom‘s wife Maggie comes into valuable information about the nature of her husband’s illness, neglects to tell him about it, then decides that she doesn’t believe him anyway.
The point is that while people sometimes behave irrationally, by and large their actions are reasonably predictable. As soon as characters start behaving in ways which occur for no better reason than to service the plot, you’ve lost the audience for good. This is best illustrated by the scene where Maggie arrives home to find her husband digging up the yard. She asks him what he’s doing, and they talk about it for a while. Then he yells at her. She says that if he ever yells at her again she’s leaving. From this exchange we can assume that if she ever comes home to find him excavating the herb garden again, he’s on reasonably safe ground.
It may sound like a minor crime, but, dammit, people just don’t act like that. If you come home and find your spouse applying a jackhammer to the wall because a ghost told them to, you will freak out. You will not, on the other hand, act calmly and rationally, then threaten to leave them because they yell at you. You will threaten to leave them because they’re insane, and moreover you’ll be calling for the men in white coats pronto. However, if Maggie had acted like a normal person the credits would have rolled over a shot of Tom in a padded cell, so the plot dictates that she calm down and leave him to his gardening.
(I’ve often wondered what would happen if a solid, dependable friend came to me babbling about vampires knocking on their window in the dead of night. I like to think that I would trust their judgement and start laying in the crucifixes, but in reality I’d probably just have them committed. I would, however, get my just desserts when the children of the night jump me as I stumble out of the pub at 3.00 a.m., proving that he who laughs last laughs maniacally.)
Perhaps you understand my concern. However, that’s not the end of the film’s crimes – next up there’s the fact that it takes a fine actor and makes him look like a B-grade slouch.
Even if your acting ability makes Olivier look like Lisa Kudrow, you’re only as good as the character you’re playing. For example, to the best of my knowledge Jeff Bridges is incapable of turning in a poor performance. However, when you’re playing the likes of The Dude (The Big Lebowski) or Max Klein (Fearless), there’s enough space to make the character your own, since they are interesting, well-rounded individuals who loom large on the screen. On the other hand, if you were to cast him as, say, one of the leads in Mission to Mars, it’s unlikely that his performance would win him any new fans, since a sheet of cardboard doesn’t promote world-class origami.
Tom Witzky is not an interesting character. He has no quirks, no faults, no foibles – he’s a stereotypical solid, honest family man, and Koepp evidently intended that this would make his eventual slide into insanity all the more shocking. However, this ambition is not realised, because not only is Witzky boring as hell, his insanity doesn’t take him far enough into the left-field - he widens his eyes, he hears electricity, and he digs. End of story. (Consider Linda Hamilton committing acts of terrorism while raving about Terminators and death from above – now that’s insane.)
So does Kevin Bacon turn in a poor performance? No, he does not, but it’s the equivalent of hiring Michelangelo to paint your garage – his talents are wasted on a thankless role, his abilities crushed beneath the weight of Witzky’s half-formed personality.
Elsewhere things aren’t much better – Kathryn Erbe is hamstrung by a role which requires her to act like a self-absorbed brat, while Zachary Cope has you wishing Haley Osmont would stop by and show him how it’s done. Special mention, however, must go to Illeana Douglas, whose annoying voice and rubbery features ensure that precious little acting is required to tackle the role of the serial hypnotist.
To be fair, as director Koepp does his damnedest to enliven the proceedings. He throws in a little gratuitous sex and nudity (for which he has my eternal gratitude), and there are a couple of set-pieces (most notably the effects of the ill-advised hypnotism) which make you sit up and take note. However, most of the ghostly occurrences are either oddly restrained (quick flashes of the recently departed) or gratuitous (a gut-twisting shot of a snapping fingernail, included for no better reason than to make the viewer squirm). You never entirely credit Witzky’s descent into madness, since these events do not occur with sufficient frequency and are nowhere near as disturbing as we might expect. This also has the unfortunate side-effect of divorcing the viewer from the proceedings, when by rights you should be drawn kicking and screaming into a world best left unseen (see Jacob’s Ladder for an example of what I’m talking about).
So does the film have any redeeming qualities? Well, we might hope that its failure will ensure Koepp never lands another directing gig again, and Bacon learns that quality is always preferable to quantity. If not, we can look forward to another object lesson in ineptitude, coming soon to a theatre near you.
Stir of Echoes didn’t terrify me, but that sure as hell does.
* * *
2001 Bacon plays Puck in the Kenneth Branagh adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He earns plaudits from coast to coast, and instantly rockets into the A-list. Then he wakes up, picks up his sign, and heads off to work.
And somewhere, far away, the graveyard of unfulfilled potential waits to claim his mortal remains. And so it goes.(with apologies to Kurt Vonnegut)
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originally posted: 03/17/01 23:33:42