Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

ARLINGTON ROAD (1999) *1/4

Directed by Mark Pellington. Written by Ehren Kruger. Photography, Bobby Bukowski. Editing, Conrad Buff. Production design, Therese DePrez. Music, Angelo Badalamenti. Producers, Peter Samuelson, Tom Gorai, Marc Samuelson. Cast: Jeff Bridges (Michael Faraday), Tim Robbins (Oliver Lang), Joan Cusack (Cheryl Lang), Hope Davis (Brooke Wolfe), Robert Gossett (FBI Agent Whit Carver), Mason Gamble (Brady Lang), Spencer Treat Clark (Grant Faraday), Stanley Anderson (Dr. Archer Scobee), et al. A Screen Gems release. 117 minutes. R (violence)
The day after I saw this movie, I was reading in The New York Times George Vecsey's analysis of the US women's soccer team victory. (Vecsey is both a paragon of sports writers and an excellent author of non-sports books, including "Loretta Lynn, Coal Miner's Daughter" the bestseller which became a great movie). I quote:  "Now the American women are hot, but, then again, America lives for temporary diversion and instant gratification -- new pop groups, new sunglasses, new cars, new Internet stocks." One might add to this many other items, including new movies, such as Arlington Road.

The following day I received a TBS announcement for a made-for-cable film, First Daughter, about the kidnapping of the President's daughter by American terrorists. As Voltaire said about God, "if He didn't exist, he should have been invented." Hollywood, in the absence of that so-useful Big Bad Soviet Bear, predictably turned to world-wide terrorism , including home-grown American destroyers. As in Arlington Road, an ambitious but disappointing opus.

At  D.C.'s George Washington University, Professor Faraday ( Bridges) teaches courses on terrorism. He's a widower with his boy, Grant. His FBI-agent wife, was killed in a Federal cock-up. Faraday is being semi-consoled by Brooke, one of his graduate students. He lives on Arlington Road where he makes friends with neighbors Oliver (Robbins) and Cheryl Lang (Cusack). Then he begins to suspect that Oliver is not the architect he claims to be, but a terrorist leader...

The film open with the protracted, unexplained sequence. A heavily bloodied, badly burnt boy staggers down a street. Just as you think that he'll fall down dead, he is rescued by Michael Faraday who drives him to a hospital. It's all  done as a skillful "internal" montage, whose horror, however, does not really hide goofs and improbabilities. Item: in a close-up, a drop of blood falls on one of the boy's sneakers. Seconds later, the same sneaker has no blood.  Item: Arlington Road is a suburban street flanked by many houses and lawns but I cannot remember seeing any people around. It is far too convenient that the only driver who notices the kid's predicament is Faraday. Item: the child  rapidly goes from apparent death throes to a lightning-fast recovery with one arm in a cast as the only visible sign. The explanation of the boy's condition, given by his parents, the Langs, is a fireworks accident.

All this is an artificial gimmick to have Faraday and the Langs meet and develop nice, neighborly relations. The couple has a  boy, Brady, and two girls.  Brady and Grant become best friends. This is held in reserve for future, nefarious purposes. It is also is a gimmick for dis-alienating the orphan Grant who disapproves of papa's girlfriend Brooke, and for turning the 8-year old into a "regular American boy," a fact that gets worked into the plot.

Another ho-hummer. Michael Faraday's questioning of Oliver's kosher-ness as a designer of malls starts with his 2-seconds' glimpse of plans that are not of a mall but of an office building. Quick eyes, what?

Item: when later Michael needs to look at those plans by getting into the Lang house when the couple is not there, the two little girls who open the door are uncharacteristically pan-faced and suspicious; Michael's excuses for entering are woolly-minded, blatantly dumb. So is his search.

Item: Brooke, rather thinking that Michael's suspicions are paranoid, is an  unbelievably obtuse naysayer. So is the FBI agent, a friend of Michael's.

Cliche Item: when a good person is feverishly phoning about a discovery from a pay-phone, and turns around, the enemy is standing there.

Improbable Item: Michael is checking old newspaper files about Oliver...who suddenly appears behind him.

Cliche Item: the obligatory as well as unbelievable car chase.

Impossible Item: the way chasers and chased connect.

Goof Item: a car is hit broadsides; next that side is shown undamaged.

[Here I eliminate about dozens of other items]

The finale is highly improbable but does score a point by going against the guesses of audiences conditioned by too many action Good vs. Evil flicks. I won't disclose it.

The script of Arlington Road-- a name evoking Red, White and Blue patriotism-- wastes much money and technical talent  during its two hours where nothing makes sense. Its photography and editing are artsy not arty. Story an dialogue go overboard with deviousness and indirection. Has no one learned from Alfred Hitchcock the value of clarity ?. The whole is an alienating mess, and a probably uncalled for stress on large-scale, minutely organized, hugely financed (but by whom?) American terrorism.

The movie's events are under the sign of  The World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings, and the mess at Ruby Ridge. Consciously or not, it connects with such good pictures as The Invasion of The Body Snatchers, The Stepford Wives, Seconds, Rosemary's Baby, et al., that is, films where people are not what they seem to be.
Rescuing it from total destruction are good performances by Bridges who is convincing in his pain and obsessions; by Robbins who is smooth and would be frightening if credible; and by the clever casting of ever-charming Joan Cusack as a wolf in lamb's clothing.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel