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1 review, 1 rating

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Underneath, The
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by Jack Sommersby

"A Negligible Noir"
2 stars

A first-rate director and cast are stuck trying to give vitality to a second-rate script.

Steven Soderbergh's The Underneath is luxuriously photographed in cannily composed widescreen, and from start to finish it holds you in its ironclad grasp, but I can't say I particularly enjoyed it. A loose remake of the 1949 film-noir Criss Cross, it at least has a better lead actor than the inadequate Burt Lancaster in Peter Gallagher, who played the unfaithful husband in Soderbergh's superb debut sex, lies and videotape; of the four central roles in that influential art-house success, Gallagher's was the least well-written, but he managed to make his philandering lawyer character pathetically amusing. Here he plays Michael Chambers, a compulsive gambler who's returned to his hometown of Austin, Texas, after a two-year hiatus working on an offshore oil rig attempting to lay down some roots and start a normal life. His widowed mother is getting married to an agreeable sort, a hard-working man employed as a guard for an armored-car company, and after the wedding the man helps Michael get a job there. But Michael, who abandoned his girlfriend Rachel (Alison Elliott) after racking up a thirty-thousand-dollar sports bet he couldn't pay, is a prisoner of the past: he wants to start up his relationship again with Rachel even though she's engaged to Tommy Dundee (William Fichtner), the shady owner of a downtown night club; and Rachel, still peeved at Michael for leaving her to fend for herself with Michael's bookie and creditors, isn't exactly overflowing with forgiveness, yet a yearning for Michael remains because she can't seem to completely cut him loose. Giving away more of the plot would be unfair since a good deal of the story is dependent on it, and Soderbergh, who co-wrote the screenplay (under the pseudonym Sam Lowry) with Criss Cross's Daniel Fuchs, has fancied up the construction to where the film takes place in three different intertwined time periods -- there are the "future" scenes encoded with a time stamp of Michael driving an armored car, "present day" scenes of Michael starting his new life, and "past" scenes of Michael and Rachel's tumultuous relationship. I despised this brand of narrative trickery in Quinten Tarantino's overpraised Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction because it was employed to camouflage just how tired and paper-thin the stories were, but in The Underneath it's validly used in gradually revealing character layers as the plot progresses, making the motivations of those involved in the crime scheme clearer and their post-robbery actions even clearer.

Still, Soderbergh is too in love with his own technical virtuosity, as was also the case with his second effort, the vapid Kafka. Working with the talented cinematographer Elliot Davis, he smothers just about every frame with so much visual excess that the film turns overly mechanical, and thus difficult to genuinely respond to. When we first see Michael, through the armored car's front window, it's with a green color gel as he's driving with this million-and-a-half of cash (subtle!); and when he steps through his mother's front door upon his return, the camera slowly tracks sideways in a medium shot so we can see Michael pass by a multi-colored glass partition as he turns from blue to red; and so on. (Watching this film is like looking at a lurid plugged-in plate glass window for one-hundred minutes.) And while the deftness of the scene transitions is evident, after a while it's clear Soderbergh isn't linking them together dramatically but stylistically. One could call this "clinically chic," but it's also alienating. There's a level of tawdriness direly lacking in the proceedings that all good noir needs; the cool, distanced approach meshes all too well with the characters who are just as cool and distanced -- they're remote, especially Michael, who we have absolutely no emotional stake in. Don't blame Gallagher, who gave a phenomenal performance as the grieved widower in To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday; he tries infusing the role with as much truth as it can hold but is undone by the nonexistent underpinnings. And Elliott, who impressed as the wrongly-accused daycare worker in the HBO picture Indictment: The McMartin Trial, puts a dexterous spin on the cliched role of the femme fatale. But the top-heavy dialogue is quite a detriment ("There's what you want and there's what's good for you, and they never meet"), along with a dreadful twist-upon-a-twist a la Basic Instinct that in no way shape or form plays fair with us. Yet there are two standout scenes that should be studied in film-school classes for years to come: one, taking up ten minutes of the running time, where an injured Michael is questioned in a hospital bed by family and law-enforcement officials while maintaining the guise that he wasn't the inside man, and we see it all from his point-of-view; and the following one where Michael desperately strikes up conversation with a man waiting in the hallway who might or might not be there to silence him as a disposable loose end. Unfortunately, these are the few bright spots. Author Gertrude Stein famously wrote, "The trouble with Oakland is that when you get there, there isn't any there there." In this case, there's nothing underneath The Underneath.

Though the DVD is non-anamophic,the production notes reveal a good many interesting details.

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originally posted: 03/14/14 13:21:13
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User Comments

5/19/14 Richard Brandt Needs a young Tony Curtis dancing into the frame or something. 3 stars
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  28-Apr-1995 (R)



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