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MOVIE REVIEW

Edgy `Hard Candy' loses its way

A thriller about pedophilia starts out strong but spirals into a reversal of roles that becomes tedious.

April 14, 2006|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

Slick and stylish in its writing, direction and design, the psychological thriller "Hard Candy" stays fresh for as long as it does on the strength of powerful performances by Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson. Maddeningly exploitative, the film takes a provocative subject -- pedophilia -- and wraps it in a sterile, vacuum-sealed package, devoid of meaning.

Page plays Hayley, a precocious 14-year-old with a Jean Seberg fixation, who hooks up via the Internet with Jeff (Wilson), a successful 32-year-old photographer whose taste in women (make that girls) veers toward the distressingly young. The first 20 minutes of the film (which would have made a great short) detail their innuendo-tinged pas de deux as they agree to meet at a coffeehouse before naughtily retreating to Jeff's minimalist Hollywood Hills home for an impromptu photo shoot.

Hayley ratchets up the tension with increasingly daring intimations, then quickly turns the tables on Jeff. As predator becomes prey, the film goes terribly wrong, devolving into a disappointingly simple-minded revenge fantasy bent on dispensing the kind of medieval justice once meted out by Steve Martin as Theodoric of York on "Saturday Night Live."

The sophisticated, complex characters initially set up by screenwriter Brian Nelson and director David Slade grow tiresome as they are put through a series of reversals designed to test the audience's sympathies. The essentially two-handed drama feels increasingly like a one-act play stretched beyond its limits. The boyish Page is amazingly assured, but the implausible turns of the script weigh heavily as Hayley morphs into a pixie-faced, scalpel-wielding vigilante, and the punishment she has planned for Jeff drags the film into a neighborhood adjacent to, albeit less explicit, than that inhabited by films such as "Hostel" and "Saw" (also Lionsgate releases).

Though Jeff is clearly a creep from the get-go -- he is meeting underage girls on the Web -- Wilson adeptly shades him so that it's open to question how sleazy he actually is. The filmmakers, however, sabotage their own (rather weak) climax by stacking the deck in the film's second half, seemingly to rationalize "Hard Candy's" own sleaziness.

As a pure thriller, the film also goes soft in the last half hour. All the film's shiny surfaces and lacerating dialogue cannot make up for the fact that the machinations geared toward keeping the characters in or near the gnawingly claustrophobic house also serve to drain it of any real tension.

*

`Hard Candy'

MPAA rating: R for disturbing, violent and aberrant sexual content involving a teen, and for language

A Lionsgate Films release. Director David Slade. Producers David W. Higgins, Richard Hutton, Michael Caldwell. Screenplay by Brian Nelson. Director of photography Jo Willems. Editor Art Jones. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.

Exclusively at ArcLight Cinemas, 6360 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 464-4226.

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