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MOVIE REVIEW

Tampering With 'Juror' : Despite a Dream Team, the Thriller Doesn't Reach Level of Reality

February 02, 1996|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

Annie Laird, the artist heroine of "The Juror," specializes in creating sculpture you feel without seeing. The film that tells her story manages the same trick, only in reverse: It's something you see without feeling anything at all.

Despite the star power of Demi Moore and Alec Baldwin, Oscar-winning screenwriter Ted Tally of "The Silence of the Lambs" and a director ("What's Love Got to Do With It's" Brian Gibson) coming off a major hit, "The Juror" is a torpid psychological thriller, muddled, misconceived and uninvolving.

The saga of a jury member so put upon she would've been grateful to be on the O.J. Simpson panel, "The Juror" is one of those films that thinks it's interesting but isn't. Perhaps group hypnosis convinced nominally savvy individuals that this was a tale demanding to be told; instead, it's yet another putative can't-miss project that did.

A busy single mom as well as a sculptor living and working in New York's Westchester County, Annie Laird (Moore) is initially happy to be picked for jury duty in the murder trial of Mafia chieftain Louie Boffano (Tony Lo Bianco) because she could use a little excitement in her life.

Also happy, but for less savory reasons, is a mysterious gangland operative known only as the Teacher (Baldwin), so named because "when you see him, school is out." Hoping to manipulate key jury members to acquit Boffano, he picks Annie as his target because her concern for son Oliver (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) makes her vulnerable. And besides, he confides to a dubious associate, "I think she's sexy and smart. Not your average mommy."

Insinuating himself into Annie's life by purchasing some of her art, the Teacher wastes little time in revealing himself and browbeating the poor woman into obeying his smallest command. The trouble is, what unnerves Annie Laird is not likely to make much of an impression on the audience at large.

For try as he might, Baldwin is unable to make the character of this psychotic know-it-all, a sensitive and solicitous sadist who claims to want nothing but the best for Annie and her son, into anything disturbing. A spouter of pompous twaddle on the order of "I bow to fear" and "The way of power is the unvarying way," the Teacher is much closer to tedious than terrifying.

The same goes for "The Juror's" screwy plot and leaden dialogue, credited to Tally from a novel by George Dawes Green, which has the Teacher continuing his wretched relationship with Annie after the trial is over and even posits that her endless nightmare becomes something of a demented growth experience for the horrified woman.

Awkward all around, with its surprises telegraphed and an ending that is laughable even in Hollywood terms, "The Juror" lacks the knack of making its story even minimally convincing. And without that connection to reality, nothing it does makes very much of an impression.

None of this is Moore's fault, but given the powerhouse diva personality she invariably projects, casting her as an uncertain woman who doesn't know her own psychological strength adds to the lack of believability.

For filmgoers who've just come back from the Sundance Film Festival, "The Juror" offers another reason to be dispirited. Anne Heche, who gave a pair of sparkling, offbeat performances in two Sundance films, "Pie in the Sky" and "Walking and Talking," is shoe-horned into the usual thankless and exploitative role as the heroine's best friend. To compare her work in those pictures with what she is allowed to do here is to understand why Sundance has become an oasis while the mainstream Hollywood that "The Juror" represents looks increasingly like a vast and barren desert.

* MPAA rating: R for violence, language and sexuality. Times guidelines: a scene of lovemaking, several murders and attempts at terror.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

'The Juror'

Demi Moore: Annie Laird

Alec Baldwin: Teacher

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Oliver

Anne Heche: Juliet

James Gandolfni: Eddie

Lindsay Crouse: Tallow

Tony Lo Bianco: Louie Boffano

An Irwin Winkler production, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Brian Gibson. Producers Irwin Winkler, Rob Cowan. Executive producer Patrick McCormick. Screenplay Ted Tally, based on the book by George Dawes Green. Cinematographer Jamie Anderson. Editor Robert Reitano. Costumes Colleen Atwood. Music James Newton Howard. Production design Jan Roelfs. Art director Charley Beal. Set decorator Leslie A. Pope. Running time: 2 hours.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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