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Shortcut to Happiness
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by Erik Childress

"or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About This Film and Love 30 Rock"
2 stars

Shortcut to Happiness makes for a more interesting time capsule than a film experience. In the unfathomable amount of time that the film has sat in limbo, we re-elected one president and have started proceedings for the next one, and even Mindhunters, The Great Raid and Lucky You were all made, languished on the shelf and finally released. Once known as Alec Baldwin’s directorial debut, an updating of The Devil and Daniel Webster, it finished principal photography back in 2001 and, reportedly, had its investors’ assets frozen, leaving it without the funding to complete post production. Would no one rub two pennies together to give it a chance? Could a film reuniting the cast of The Edge coupled with the sex appeal of Jennifer Love Hewitt look so bad in dailies that the FBI had to seize it? Taking six years of bottom twenty lists into account, the answer is still a resounding no. Although what’s finally been cobbled together could have used a lot more work before the cameras ever started rolling.

Going from the heartland to the Big Apple, it’s the literary world being farmed by Jabez Stone (Alec Baldwin), a struggling writer working on downhome tales of being careful what you wish for while Carrot Top is getting book deals. So is his friend, Julius Jenson (Dan Aykroyd), who isn’t above flaunting his monetary value in front of his wishfully erudite friends. One night in a fit of frustration, Jabez nearly kills an old woman with his typewriter. A knock on the door brings into his life the barely legal vision of Jennifer Love Hewitt in a trenchcoat. We’re wise enough not to need an Elvis song to know she’s The Devil. And how can Jabez refuse an offer that will put him in the clear for attempted murder as well as give him what he thinks he’s always wanted – success!

Ten years of it, in fact, for his immortal soul. If we’ve learned nothing from Bedazzled or the Wishmaster series, these deals from Scratch come with a catch. Fame and fortune Jabez may have, but he is looked down upon by his colleagues for writing crap. Money, broads and awards are all his, but time is also spinning rapidly before his eyes providing him little opportunity to enjoy it. His only hope may be successful publisher, Daniel Webster (Anthony Hopkins), who has had his run-in with the little minx once before, to bail him out in a “before sundown” trial.

In essence this is an immortal story that should be able to survive any modern tweaking as long as the lesson’s intact and the tweakers have their wits about them to apply said lessons to society’s own tweak. And for a brief period the film does manage to coast with a few droll lines including Jabez’s reading habits and Webster’s office decorum (“Do you think I’d have a fake tail?) But the problems begin with the casting of Hewitt and the subsequent handling of her. There is one reason to cast her in this role. OK, maybe two, but she’s a walking temptation anyway you slice it with the persona of the girl next door. Either you exploit that breach or you apply her in the most superficial manner possible to dispense with both the lack of screen time given your chief adversary and the deficiency of her dialogue when she does appear. Much of the fault can be distributed to Hewitt’s performance which has neither the zing nor the menace to effectively sell us that she has any credible advantage over heavyweights like Baldwin and Hopkins. The costume department does Hewitt no favors either, failing to accentuate her character by dressing her in more clothes than a mistress of the Taliban.

As her primary opponent, Baldwin’s Jabez doesn’t have much of an arc and is left drifting through a second act that appears as lost as him. The concept of a decent man wandering through a period in his life that he should be enjoying is an interesting twist on the played good-to-selfish makeover. Only it feels like the movie was still trying to go that route in a poorly played scene where Jabez insensitively dismisses a friend played by Barry Miller while his handlers demand his time. Anyone being that annoyed by publicist flunkies while their friend keeps beating around the bush on what’s so important would snap a little too. Jabez doesn’t inspire much sympathy cause we just lose interest in him and wonder where the sexy devil’s screen time went. Hopkins ends up faring much better simply by showing up with that inescapable statesmanlike disposition. Can you think of anyone who can deliver a courtroom oratory with more conviction than Hopkins?

Though set in 2001 at a time when a phone call from Paula Wagner after a Mission: Impossible film meant more, the resulting film which Baldwin understandably removed his director credit from has more of a curious throwback to the ‘80s where films like Splash, Date with an Angel and Mannequin gave loser males hope. Maybe that’s why Kim Cattrall is on hand to fill the quota just short of fulfilled by Christopher Young’s bouncy score. Jennifer Love Hewitt would have been right at home in that decade, likely starring in two of those films, but she’s lost here providing no fire, in scenes that 1945’s Simone Simon could have stared through and cause a mushroom cloud, and borderline embarrassing crossfire in the final courtroom scenes. The script, credited to three writers including Oscar-winner Bill Condon, doesn’t have the right feel aside from an occasional zinger and Baldwin is a little too earnest for the story’s good. Maybe none of that criticism matters though since it’s damned near hopeless for a film to sit around this long and not develop a lot of rot.

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originally posted: 07/13/07 14:00:00
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