Music Box Reviews
[originally posted 16May2000]
This movie had every possible ingredient one could put together to come up with a film I don't like. The annoying Jessica Lange in the lead role. Armin Mueller-Stahl while on the downward slide. (If you don't believe me, check out the last, say, ten or so things he's done at imdb. Then come back and tell me I'm wrong.) Writing by the abominable Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct, Jade, Showgirls) and direction by Costa-Gavras in his "I'm such an artist I can drop my first name!" phase. Yep-- with the exception of Julia Roberts and Kevin Costner showing up, this one has every last ingredient to make it a perfectly awful film. So why isn't it?
This is the weirdly absorbing tale of a Hungarian immigrant charged with war crimes forty years after coming to America; his daughter, who also happens to be his lawyer; her son, the closest member of the family to the immigrant (quite ably played by Mueller-Stahl; Lukas Haas plays the kid); the annoying son (Michael Rooker's best performance since Henry, and perhaps his last good one to date); the annoying prosecuting attorney (slimily done to the hilt by the always-invigorating Frederic Forrest); and perhaps some of the best, if least believable, courtroom-drama scenes this side of Law and Order.
I say "weirdly absorbing" because there's really nothing out of the ordinary about this tale, aside from the fact that some otherwise-workmanlike actors turned in the performances of their careers in this movie, the writing is so unlike Eszterhas' usual tripe that one suspects a ghostwriter, and Costa-Gravas (whose first name, if you want to piss him off, is Konstantinos) must have thought he was directing in Europe, because he never made another American film this good. The character sketches are kept simple, and yet they're not parodies; questions are raised and answered, but the movie never becomes an easily-categorizable whodunit; and everyone is just so damn believable that it all works. Score one for the guys who never did anything right before. ***
Ultimately, our assumptions about the guilt or innocence of the character in this movie is not about anything the movie does or doesn't tell us about him. They would not bother telling us the story at all if he were an innocent man, and we know that. It has happened that innocents have been put on trial for war crimes, but there isn't much of a story to that most of the time. It's hard to build up a sense of righteous indignation over it unless you also fail to believe that the accused crime was that big a deal in the first place. Otherwise, you are determined that someone must pay, and as long as the wrong person isn't convicted, that's better than the crime's having been ignored. So we know how the story is likely to go. However, we don't believe what the outcome will be because of what we know about the character, because we don't really know anything about the character. You can make that work; this movie didn't.
Ann Talbot (Jessica Lange) is a high-powered attorney. One day, her father is informed that he is to stand trial for having lied on his citizenship papers. During the war, he was a Hungarian policeman--and, the accusation says, a member of a group with the purpose of rounding up and executing Jews and Gypsies and so forth, machinery for the Holocaust. Her father, Michael Laszlo (Armin Mueller-Stahl), admits that he was in the [i]gendarmerie[/i], but he denies categorically that he was part of the Special Section. He insists on standing trial, and he insists that his daughter defend him. She is a criminal lawyer, not immigration, but she knows her father must be innocent and so agrees. This is one of a series of bad decisions on her part. Prosecution attorney Jack Burke (Frederic Forrest) brings forth witness after witness to testify about the man who committed so many atrocities back in Hungary; Ann claims it's all a conspiracy against a noted anti-Communist.
The fact is, Ann never really has a crisis of conscience. Not really. She believes her father implicitly. He can't be a monster. Obviously, these things happened, and she is horrified when she finds out that her father is telling her son (Lukas Haas) that they are exaggerated, that the Holocaust is exaggerated. But she goes from believing every word her father said to an improbable discovery of the truth with no real intervening emotional development. I think the story might have been worth telling had it been a gradual realization, something she couldn't deny to herself any longer, not because she saw proof but because the gradual awareness that the evidence wasn't all faked came over her. There is a story in that, but it would have taken work, and this movie is more interested in the cheap emotional gut-shot, as evidenced by the ending. I mean, it never dawned on this woman that just saying, "Oh, the Communists faked everything" isn't really the same as evidence? And she's a lawyer?
Similarly, the story of a man with a secret eating at him might be worth telling. Or the story of a man who really is a monster but who knows he must hide it if he is going to go one having the life he wants to live. Armin Mueller-Stahl hardly gets any lines at all through the center of the picture, and when he finally does speak again, it is to deliver some rant about the Communists' poisioning her mind and how no one will believe her. The movie isn't about him; it's about her. Because it is about her, the movie does not, it seems, feel the need to develop anyone else. But you have to wonder, right? I mean, don't you? What would a person like this be like? What would they go through? How would what they did during the war change them as a person, change how they raised their family? The bit about how he told his grandson that the Holocaust was an exaggeration is the only real character development we get for the entire hour and a half in the middle.
It's always frustrating to me when I can see better movies embedded in things I'm watching. Jessica Lange gives a fine performance when she has something to work with. It's nice to see Michael Rooker not killing anyone. And again, there are at least a dozen places I could have gone to give this movie some real emotional depth. But for all we're intended to see the possible Communist plot as a red herring, it still overwhelms the movie. No, Michael Laszlo isn't being unjustly accused because of an anti-Communist action five years earlier. But it could still be why he's being accused, even though he did it. Presumably he got involved with the fascists because he thought they were better than the Communists, but that's only an assumption on my part. We don't know, because we don't know what's going on in any character's head. They are all going through the motions, because the script fails to breathe even a little life into them. Movies like this are the only kind which ought to be remade--ones where you can make them better.