Double Jeopardy (1999) ***
Directed by Bruce Beresford. Written by Davi Weisberg and Douglas S. Cook. Photography, Peter James. Editing, Mark Warner. Production design, Howard Cummings. Music, Normand Corbeil. Producer, Leonard Goldberg. Cast: Tommy Lee Jones (Travis Lehman), Ashley Judd (Libby Parsons), Bruce Greenwood (Nick Parsons), Annabeth Gish (Angie), Roma Maffia (Margaret Skolowski), Davenia McFadden (Evelyn Lake). A Paramount release. 106 minutes. Rated R (sex, language, violence).
No-nonsense nonsense, this thriller is firmly tongue-in-cheek but smart enough not to push this aspect onto the audience. It requires every bit of suspended disbelief you can muster -- and what's nice is that you can do it effortlessly.
Australian-born Bruce Beresford directs with pep, zip, velocity and a knack for shrugging off the outrageous. Beresford is, unjustly, seldom mentioned as one of the best film-makers, yet he has done superior works. Among them, in Australia, Don's Party (1976), The Getting of Wisdom, Breaker Morant, The Fringe Dwellers. In America: Tender Mercies, Her Alibi, Driving Miss Daisy; Black Robe (Canadian), Mister Johnson (shot in Africa) and others. There have been some misses, of course, but those matter little in a career distinguished by variety, intelligence, sensitivity and humor.
Double Jeopardy is a legalistic term : no one can be tried again for the same crime. Suppose a wife is found guilty of killing her husband; and that the husband is alive and well and living it up. If the wife decides to shoot him dead, she'll get away with it.
That's roughly what occurs here. The film opens by the coast of Washington State where live, in luxury, shaker-mover Nick, his wife Libby, their 4-year old son Matty. At a fund-raising party "chez" Parsons, a man innocent of art culture tells his companion that they're looking at works by Picasso. Nick sets them straight. "It's Kandinsky" he explains, and goes on to a micro-lecture.
In US movies, someone who can perorate on Kandinsky's and Picasso's dates, periods and styles, may well become, ipso facto, suspect. Which is correct in Nick's case.
In ways too deliciously bloody to reveal, Nick fakes his death and disappearance, causing Libby to be found guilty of murder. In prison she is gutsy but misses her son terribly. In ways too clever to disclose, she discovers that Nick and her best friend Angie (to whom Libby had confided young Matty) had hatched a plot.
So she humbles herself before the parole board and gets paroled -- after serving just six years -- talk of improbabilities! But then, verisimilitude is falling off all the windows in this film. Then again, things are so catchy and kinetic that we don't really care.
For the next two years, Libby will be under heavy restrictions, supervised by parole officer Travis (Tommy Lee Jones), who looks rough, acts tough, but has, as you guess right away, a great heart and a secret sorrow.
Libby does not seek revenge. She only wants her son back. Her own investigation becomes a maze of complications, escapes, near-arrests and full-arrests by cops and by Travis. They defy description, credibility and logic. Mind you, Libby has not aged even one day in prison. The only sign of fatigue from adventures and prowesses is occasional, discreet puffiness under her eyes.
Yet the perils of Libby are vastly eye-catching, entertaining in the action-movie sense. The more outrageous they become the funnier they get, even though the story is built as a thriller more than a ha-ha movie. Ingeniously, it forces you to capitulate and drop any shreds of disbelief left in your brain.
The search for Angie concludes first, made partly possible by Libby's great physical shape (it legitimizes her remarkable training for fitness in prison). and by her newly, instantly learned skills in computers, faking personalities, magically getting cash, and so on.
The search for Nick take her, then Travis, to New Orleans, where she gets a free Armani evening dress (don't ask); where a barman spontaneously warns her against the police; where Nick is now a celebrity with a French name and a Southern drawl; where remembrances of Hitchcock movies (especially Cary Grant bidding "funny" at an auction in North by Northwest) and of Gothic terror, plus an avalanche of twists, keep us pleasantly busy until the telegraphed yet enjoyable happy ending.
Pleasing too is the first-rate photography by a habitual, Australian collaborator of Beresford's, and the beautiful visuals filmed in British Columbia (standing-in for Washington State) and lavish sights of New Orleans.
Ashley Judd is something of a revelation. Tommy Lee Jones, well rehearsed from The Fugitive, can play his part with the proverbial hands tied behind his back. Supporting roles are tops.
Don't jeopardize your fun. Avoid previews or reviews that disclose too much. In spite of its collection of predictabilities and impossibilities, or rather because of them, the film is great entertainment.