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Lives stuck inside the Beltway

In 'The Walker,' D.C. is a trap. Paul Schrader's commentary on politics, alas, is confining too.

December 07, 2007|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

Paul Schrader's straight-faced Beltway potboiler "The Walker" begins as a simmering chamber piece about D.C. gossip and petty scandals, then overflows into an indictment of all things Washington. Not content to be a cautionary melodrama about the real housewives of the District of Columbia, however, it fans out to encompass corporate bribery, political corruption and the war on terror.

Schrader has said that the idea began as he wondered what might have happened to the Julian Kaye character of "American Gigolo" in midlife, but as the political climate became more and more conservative he felt the urge to make the movie more and more political. Even if you agree with the sentiment, though, the whole thing feels fusty and forced.

It's too bad, because the walker of the title is one Carter Page III, played by a butter-cream-smooth Woody Harrelson in an airy blond bouffant and a wardrobe apparently inspired by the 1980s adaptation of "The Great Gatsby." "Car," as he is called, is a cultured gay man with enviable connections and an encyclopedic knowledge of D.C. society. He's also the scion of a tobacco-farming, slave-owning, senatorial Southern dynasty. Depending on how you look at it, Car has either betrayed his breeding or transcended it by becoming a semi-idle social gadfly and the trusty companion, escort and confidant to a series of D.C.'s grandest dames.

The big political issues of the day (and the past several days) are uncomfortably wedged into each nook and crevice -- there's a war on every TV screen, for instance, and an artist character makes giant collages using Abu Ghraib photographs. The broader the canvas, the more the movie loses focus and the more it renders the problems of the central character sort of silly by comparison.

Car may spend his days catering to the every whim of lonely socialites played by Lauren Bacall, Lily Tomlin and Mary Beth Hurt, but his heart belongs to Emek (Moritz Bleibtreu), a Middle Eastern photographer who makes provocative Mapplethorpe-ish collages from the aforementioned photos. Regardless, Car spends most of his time with his closest friend, Lynn Lockner (Kristin Scott Thomas), the wife of a liberal senator.

Languishing in a political marriage, Lynn is having an affair with a lobbyist named Robbie (Steven Hartley) whom she discovers murdered in his apartment one afternoon while Car waits for her outside. Terrified of the scandal should she be implicated, she swears Car to secrecy and he complies. But when he winds up a convenient suspect for a politically motivated prosecutor, she abandons him to his fate, and Car must choose between disloyalty and dishonesty. It comes as no surprise to anyone but Car that the ladies he lunches with turn out to be exactly as viperish as they seem.

At one point, Emek suggests they get out of town, and Car replies by mocking the image of the two of them as happily out lovers walking hand-in-hand in Greenwich Village. At this description, which admittedly sounds pretty good, Emek shrugs, "Why not?" And you think, yeah, why not? But Car is too inexplicably entrenched in his catty canasta games, his faded past and his white-collared pastel shirts to be able to conceive of an existence beyond the clammy hothouse that is his life, and, frankly, despite Harrelson's weirdly mesmerizing performance, it's hard to empathize.

Or care.

"The Walker." MPAA rating: R for language, some violent material and nude images. Running time: 1 hour and 48 minutes. In limited release.

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