DEVIL'S ADVOCATE (1997) ** 1/3
In 1997, Taylor Hackford ("An Officer and a Gentleman," "Against All Odds," "Dolores Claiborne") made "Devil's Advocate." The Devil is (literally) Al Pacino. The advocate is Keanu Reeves as Gainesville, Florida, trial lawyer Kevin Lomax. Kevin used to be a prosecutor who won all his 64 cases before he switched to being a defender who never lost a single case. He seems to have powers of observation that approach divination, especially for jury selection and psyching. His insights get almost like semi-funny parodies of Sherlock Holmes explaining his clues to Dr. Watson.
The films gets off to a good, slick start. Lomax defending a creepy high school teacher accused of molesting a girl, wins again, even after detecting that his client was guilty. The supporting roles are well cast and played and so remain throughout the movie.
Before you can say "what the hell," an envoy from New York legal firm recruits our Southern genius. His wife is pleased, his acutely religious mother worries about his move to the New Babylon. In the Big Apple (shown as the Colossal Apple) Kevin is impressed by what appears to be the biggest and wealthiest firm on the planet.
The Boss is Pacino. His nom-de-film is John Milton, a too-cute literary conceit wasted on those audiences that never heard of "Paradise Lost." Mr.Milton shows Lomax around, tempts him-- not on a mountaintop, but on the roof of a dizzyingly tall building. The site, the sights, the legal offices, everything else range from spectacular to awesome. Lomax is impressed by the red-carpet treatment. So is does his wife Mary Ann. (He calls her Mare, which is a diminutive that has always bothered me). Kevin and Mare are a beautiful couple, in love and into touchy-feelies. She's a sexy blonde with just a soupcon of trashiness. In their new milieu of New York they and we can almost smell the money. It's not the best of odors as it is obvious that the firm is a shady international power with tentacles all over the world. So what we have in the movie's first part is primarily a big and unflattering expose, a kind of long, blackly humorous lawyer joke.
The young couple's social education continues at a huge Who's Who party that includes Senator D'Amato and boxing promoter Don King. To the credit of Reeves and Theron, the young couple reacts with relative sobriety, even as Milton does his seduction number on Mare and beautiful, law partner Christabella, does hers on Kevin.
Milton tests Lomax with a case of a Haitian cited by the health authorities for slaughtering a goat in a squalid basement, as part of his ju-ju. The man,we learn,is worth 15 million dollars. (This is one loose end among many). As expected, Lomax wins again. As expected, the sweet (?) smell of success affects him, but he does not undergo a radical transformation. Still, he changes enough for Mare to start feeling neglected and building up a hatred of New York. She has frightening, off-on visions, flashes of monstrosities. People are not what they seem. Mare, becoming unbalanced, is on the road to insanity. The plot thickens to the coagulation point when Milton decrees that Kevin is his choice to defend real-estate magnate Cullen accused of a triple murder....
"Devil's Advocate" is a high pressure film, very flashy in all departments, brilliant in photography and sets. The latter are grandiose, purposely overdone, often tackily gaudy. Donald Trump's own monumental penthouse was used for Cullen's. It is in monumentally bad taste.
Milton's abode is rich and strange. "Where does he sleep?"says Kevin. What a naive question! We all know that the Devil never sleeps -- and here's the rub. The audiences come to the movie knowing that Milton is the Devil, and even if they are somehow unaware of this, watching the story makes it obvious. From Chinese to Russian to Spanish Milton speaks all languages fluently -- but not with a pure accent, which goes to show that even the Devil would have a devil of a time with totally native speech. Or with English grammar for that matter, as Pacino says "different than" instead of "different from."
Milton knows what goes on everywhere (note the subway scene). Milton switches easily from cajoling to flirting to advising to asserting authority to all else. And throughout Pacino plays him in an over-the-top way that attempts to be amusing but in practice can get tiresome. We get clobbered by Pacino, mugged by his mugging, while Reeves goes to the other extreme of playing in almost minimalist style.
The movie, starting out as a lawyer thing, veers into a "Rosemary's Baby" thing. But while "Rosemary" deals only with Satanism, "Devil" is vitiated by its unholy mix of the social, the societal and the supernatural. The latter is well executed thanks to morphing and masks and other visuals, but since we know the answers, the surprises are for the eye, not the brain. The supernatural defuses the real and the social, and vice versa.
The other mix, of would-be black humor, pathos or tragedy, doesn't really work either. True, the movie is sufficiently twisty, visually imaginative and stocked with enough shocks, so that with tolerance and ever-increasing patience, the captive audience can keep going without yawns. But the big, satirical punch-line that lurks ( Who Needs the Devil When We Have Lawyers?) is only perceived through a glass darkly, confused and diffused by exaggerations.
Nothing exceeds like excess.