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MOVIE REVIEW : Do Cliches Hamper 'Sin'? . . . Guilty!!

June 04, 1993|MICHAEL WILMINGTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If recreational sex these days is a battlefield, then Rebecca De Mornay and Don Johnson, the stars of "Guilty as Sin" (citywide), come off as a couple of erotic samurai.

*

Playing a hotshot female defense attorney and her randy client, an accused wife-killer, these two use sexiness as a weapon: ripping each other with a glance, thrusting with an innuendo, parrying with a smile. The movie--directed by Sidney Lumet in his coolest, smoothest, most punctilious style--is an "erotic thriller" of some bloody accomplishment, and some flaws, but it's also funny. And the humor turns precisely on the easy grace and playfulness with which these actors, public sex objects of long standing, manipulate their on-screen allure.

Not all of "Guilty as Sin" works. The movie doesn't have much of the gaudy eeeegore and Adrian Lyne gloss audiences expect from "erotic thrillers." But, courtesy of Lumet and screenwriter Larry Cohen, it has something most of the others lack: an interesting center, characters that intrigue us and draw us in.

It's almost a two-person show. There are some good minor roles--Jack Warden as an avuncular shamus, Dana Ivey as a steely-prim judge, Ron White as a prosecutor-patsy and Stephen Lang as the boyfriend-in-the-background--but it's De Mornay and Johnson, two professional flirts in a deadly game, who carry the weight.

She's at her best; he's close to it. De Mornay's Jennifer Haines seduces juries and judges in the service of evil clients--murderers, mobsters--many of whom she knows are guilty. Johnson's David Greenhill is guilty, of something, but so overwhelmingly manipulative and arrogant that he thinks even outright confession can't hurt him. He's the stud without alibis, a man who brags that he lives off women. She's the woman who gets evil men off. It's a match made in courtroom hell.

That may be "Guilty's" problem. It finally succumbs to all the bogeyman-will-get-you cliches of the "Fatal Attraction" and "Basic Instinct" school, when it's onto something better, riskier.

David Greenhill has some of the comic, deadpan evil of that king of American literary Don Juans, Harry Diadem in Calder Willingham's "Eternal Fire": the role the young Paul Newman was born to play but didn't. Like Harry, mean mama's boy Greenhill is coldly self-infatuated, a first-rank liar and game-player, a ruthless sadist when the game goes sour. Jennifer, whom we often see through his eyes, is his "greatest score," a chilly, bemused, gorgeous perfectionist. Johnson gives Greenhill's seductions a fey, slightly screw-loose charm and his quiet, impacted rage is terrifying. The fact that there's no onscreen sex between the two of them only spikes the tension more.

*

The early tete-a-tete scenes, set against chilly rich backdrops, have the crisp bite of high-style romantic comedy, an "Adam's Rib" played between a killer and a shyster. It's a comedy of sex-role reversal--with Greenhill the object, Jennifer the icily appraising gazer. But the laughs are always underpinned with something darker: the voluptuous unease of two shining sex-sharks circling each other in a dark and perilous sea. Even when "Guilty" shifts into its trial scenes, or its Grand Guignol mode--bringing on the blood, terror and cliffhangers--that steely humor always seems an inch or two beneath, a knife poking through silk.

Lumet is usually superb with courtroom movies ("Twelve Angry Men" and "The Verdict"), but he's not always at top form with thrillers, and he's tended to enclose this one too much. Like Woody Allen's dramas, "Guilty as Sin" needs ventilation, exteriors. Though set in Chicago, it was shot in Toronto--and, unusually for Lumet, there's little sense of place.

But Lumet's direction of the actors, as always, is exemplary. With his quiet, almost motionless camera and his emphasis on contained emotion, he makes it real, even when it's clearly not. It's a good show, but if there's something dissatisfying here, perhaps it's because the director isn't as fascinated with genre tricks as screenwriter Cohen. He doesn't revel in the trashy nightmarish aspects of the plot, try to pull off the bravura little stylistic touches Cohen, as director, would have gone for.

Like John Schlesinger and the other "class" directors forced into big-budget yuppie-in-distress thrillers, Lumet may not be engaged enough. At this stage, he should probably be stretching himself dramatically, adapting books like Malamud's "The Assistant" or Bellow's "The Victim." But who would finance them? "Guilty as Sin" (MPAA-rated R for violence, language and some sexuality) is finance-able, a compromise. A compromise by pros: a sleek, in-and-out shocker about foreplay on the edge of an abyss.

'Guilty as Sin'

Rebecca De Mornay Jennifer Haines

Don Johnson David Greenhill

Stephen Lang Phil Garson

Jack Warden Moe

A Hollywood Pictures presentation of a Martin Ransohoff production, released by Buena Vista Distribution Inc. Director Sidney Lumet. Producer Martin Ransohoff. Executive producers Don Carmody, Don Robinson. Screenplay by Larry Cohen. Cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak. Editor Evan Lottmann. Costumes Gary Jones. Music Howard Shore. Production design Philip Rosenberg. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (for violence, language and some sexuality).

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