COPYCAT (1995) **
In "Copycat," a thriller about a serial killer, there are two Hunters : San Francisco police detective M.J. Monahan, played by Holly Hunter, and criminal psychologist Sigourney Weaver, whose "nom de film" is Helen Hunter. In their own ways, they're both hunting the murderer.
While Helen Hunter is delivering a lecture on serial killers, she sees in the audience a man making a menacing gesture at her. He is Darryl Lee, in whose trial Helen had testified. The part is played by musician Harry Connick, made-up as a chilling low-life with terrible teeth. Minutes later, in the washroom, through a satanical but preposterous scheme, he kills the cop guarding Weaver and hangs the lady. How Connick got there, carried,set up and used his equipment and why Weaver did not die, are mysteries.
Nevertheless, this opening is taut and really scary. Indeed, so frightened is Helen that when we cut to 13 months later, we learn that she had a breakdown, became agoraphobic, lives in paranoid panic, pops pills, drinks cognac and plays Italian operas. Cloistered in her ritzy apartment, she sees only one human, her gay companion-employee. All other contacts with the world are through her several TV monitors and the computers that get her on the Internet.
M.J. and sidekick Ruben (Dermot Mulroney) suspect that a series of murders in San Francisco are related. Getting suggestions in anonymous calls soon traced to Helen, the detectives, not without difficulty, visit the psychologist and convince her to help. She has figured out that the murderer is replicating the methods of famous serial killers such as the Son of Sam, Jeffrey Dahmer, the Boston Strangler, the Hillside Strangler and others.
The hunters hunt but also become the hunted in a convoluted plot. Though not new, the twist would still be serviceable were it not for its major improbabilities, lacunae, arbitrary editing, telegraphed developments. Worse, it goes into many of the cliches of the genre, so that "copycat" describes the film's operating procedure as well as the killer's.
"Copycat" is an alternating mix of acceptable logic and of incoherence, the latter predominating. M.J. is likable, has impressive professional skills but is not terribly expressive. Helen is pitiable, has impressive professional skills but is not terribly expressive. The serial killer has unlikely skills of divination and impressive techniques, including mastery of computers. He uses these to terrorize Helen or taunt the police. Many of his other means are also unbelievable, including the supply of hardware and electronics he always seems to have on hand.
He is revealed in sketchy, disconnected bits that past a certain point are more confusing than interesting. He is also the alter ego of the Harry Connick character who is shown in prison and used in ways that further obfuscate matters.
"Copycat" alternates between the unexplained, which is a bad thing, and the deja vu, which occasionally provides chills to audiences well trained in suspense devices. When Helen. for a change, smiles, you suspect danger. When she looks into her clothes closet, you expect something horrible to be there. When she takes a shower, you think of "Psycho." Whether or not anything happens, those are derivative tricks and manipulations.
A larger flaw is the non-development of characters. Some of the best examples of real people are in the works of Alfred Hitchcock. His thrillers were generally complicated, but with "clean" lines. Hitchcock knew when to say "enough" to twists and let you concentrate on the suspense rather than worry about what's going on. He had humor. His protagonists were well-rounded -- not only in the more "serious" thrillers where there is ongoing analysis of characters (cf. "Shadow of a Doubt," "Rope," "Vertigo,"etc.) but in lighter ones too.
In "North by Northwest," hero Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) comes through as a complete person, via his behavior, his reactions, his talks with his mother, his amorous advances, his quips ... down to his bookmatch cover that spells R.O.T. ("the O stands for nothing"). Or to take the case of a most clever classic thriller, the French "Diabolique," the beautifully laid-on character traits always reinforce the twists and the surprises, and vice versa.
Compared to such accomplishments "Copycat" is weak. Its killer remains a cipher. M.J. is a dedicated, serious, unflirtatious, businesslike cop, but that's about all. Helen gets a few more touches, like her long sexual frustration, but that's not enough.
Too much gimmickry and elliptical plotting --130 long minutes of it --overtakes the movie. It does have its moments, but too few of them. It also has as silly and absurd an ending as the start was good. Note how, when the killer gets to his Connick-copycat number, M.J. does not act immediately as any alert cop would. All the while the entire audience is two steps ahead of her.