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Movie Review

'The Alarmist' Traffics in Comic Paranoia

October 23, 1998|JOHN ANDERSON | FOR THE TIMES

If "The Alarmist" were a houseguest, it would amble in, sit down, prop its golf-shoed feet up on the Duncan Phyfe, chug-a-lug the Chateauneuf du Pape and charm the shirt off you. You'd ask it to stay while praying for an evacuation order. And despite the stress, the visit wouldn't be entirely without its minor epiphanies.

Among them? That enough good acting can salvage a movie even when burdened with the structural missteps of writer-director Evan Dunsky's debut feature; that charm is as valuable as sense; and that Stanley Tucci is easily one of the finer actors in the country.

Admittedly, Tucci's Heinrich Grigoris--home-security charlatan, seducer-mentor-betrayer of babe-in-the-woods Tommy Hudler (David Arquette)--may not be the best showcase for any actor's talents. But then again, maybe that's the point. Tucci takes a morally bankrupt con man like Heinrich, makes him totally human without sacrificing any of his latent malevolence and does it all within the framework of what might be called a comedy-thriller with a debt to David Mamet.

The injustice is that Oscars and their ilk are so often determined by size--of the movies' budgets, of the characters' handicaps--rather than the small turn, the internal combustion, that really proves an actor's artistry.

And speaking of naivete, Arquette's Hudler is Exhibit A in the wide, wide world of cluelessness, although he can sure sell home-security systems--which, naturally, steals Heinrich's heart.

That Tommy can do it with such boyish clumsiness knocks Gale Ancona (Kate Capshaw), the beautiful widow with the giant son (Ryan Reynolds), off her feet as well. Tommy, of course, is caught on the horns of an ethical-comic dilemma of sorts, since he is having sex with a client, who clearly has no problem with any of it.

*

Besides, ethical dilemmas are the movie's meat and potatoes, although it's best when it stays in Tommy-Heinrich world, where Heinrich and his cohort, Sally ("Murder One's" Mary McCormack), teach Tommy the finer points of salesmanship--Heinrich's staging break-ins at clients' homes to justify their faith in him, for instance--after which Tommy begins the long, lonely road to disillusion.

It gets even weirder when the movie makes a big left turn into horror and something happens to make Tommy think that perhaps Heinrich isn't just a schemer but a monster. At which point, "The Alarmist" is getting a bit out there, as they say, and you have to wonder how the tight scripting, editing and overall flow of the movie's earlier episodes got so snarled up.

It's hard to imagine anyone better than Arquette as Tommy. He communicates a kind of dreamy, semi-self-awareness and takes it, seemingly effortlessly, into determined irrationality. Capshaw, whose recent efforts have been a bit lackluster, is as winning here as she's been in years. And Tucci conducts a virtual seminar on acting whenever he gets on screen, which, we're happy to say, seems to be more and more often.

* MPAA rating: R for sexuality and language. Times guidelines: Sexual innuendo and vulgarity make it unsuitable for younger audiences.

'The Alarmist'

Stanley Tucci: Heinrich Grigoris

David Arquette: Tommy Hudler

Kate Capshaw: Gale Ancona

Mary McCormack: Sally

Key Entertainment, in association with Bandeira Entertainment, presents a Dan Stone Flynn Simchowitz production, released by Lions Gate Films. Director Evan Dunsky. Producers Dan Stone, Lisa Zimble. Screenplay by Evan Dunsky, based on the play "Life During Wartime" by Keith Reddin. Cinematographer Alex Nepomniaschy. Editor Norman Buckley. Costumes Denise Wingate. Music Christophe Beck. Production design Amy B. Ancona. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.

* Exclusive engagements at the Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500; Westside Pavilion Cinemas, 10800 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 475-0202; and Town Center 4, 3199 Park Center Drive, Costa Mesa, (714) 751-4184.

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