Ethics & Public Policy Center

Playing God

Published in EPPC Online on October 1, 1997



Playing God, directed by Andy Wilson and written by Mark Haskell Smith is yet another example of the work of the Taranteenies, those hip young filmmakers who have dominated creative thinking in Hollywood for the past three or four years, in the wake of Quentin Tarantino’s success with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. You’d think that by now some new fashion would have taken over, but there are powerful reasons why this style of filmmaking hangs on, and may do so for years to come. One is that audiences are jaded with action films, policiers, neo-noir and all the rest of it. We’ve seen it all. It is not possible not to produce a cliché the moment you include in your film a cop, or a drug dealer, or a criminal mastermind, or a serial killer, or a terrorist, or (as here) an anti-hero doctor who has lost his license for losing a patient under the knife while high on drugs. So you have to make a clever, postmodern virtue of the cliché instead of avoiding it.

Thus the druggie doctor, Eugene Sands (David Duchovny) is doomed to overfamiliarity even before the film begins. In the same way, its plot (insofar as it can be said to have a plot) is doomed to implausibility. Messrs Wilson and Smith do not bother themselves about these disadvantages to their mise en scene. Like Mr Tarantino, they glory in them. They turn them to advantages by concentrating on witty dialogue and other forms of cinematic nudges and winks to remind us that they know we are in the know. There is no way that such characters and situations can be made to look anything like reality, so instead they are made to look like movie-land. Is the FBI man (Michael Massee) exactly the same mixture of dunderhead and weasel as every other FBI man you have seen in the movies for the past four years? So what! Don’t you see that that’s the charm of him! He’s there solely as the foil for Duchovny’s melancholy doctor, and can hardly set him off if he becomes too interesting himself.

Meanwhile, Duchovny is amusing not because of his doctor-shtick but because of his “Red Shoe Diaries” shtick. Only now, instead of pitching soft porn on HBO, he is pitching existential angst and rueful, Hemingway-style anti-heroism on the big screen. It’s a good fit. The bogus portentousness of the one suggests the bogus portentousness of the other. It was probably only copyright problems that prevented Touchstone from hiring Stella, the dog, as well as Mr Duchovny, so that he could tell her about how, when your life is as messed up as his, you don’t mind so much as an ordinary person would when you are kidnapped by “a couple of guys who look like Metallica rejects.” Or about the temptations to which you are subject.

“It’s an old story. . .the choice to be a slave in heaven or a star in hell. . .and hell does not always look like hell. On a good day, it can look a lot like L.A. Right, Stella?”

“Arf.”

Likewise, Timothy Hutton has finally left adolescence and become a horrifyingly ruthless villain, given to uttering funny lines like, “You know, Eugene, you have to embrace your criminal self.” But would he have been half so entertainingly nasty a villain if he hadn’t been playing gentle and sensitive teenagers since the time when he was a teenager? His screen persona brought to this role is like his epicene appearance and the name he is given—Raymond Blossom—a joke designed to titillate the palate of the jaded movie-goer.

It’s all in the casting, you see. The third principal part here is played by Angelina Jolie, most recently seen as the second Mrs George Wallace on Showtime. But she doesn’t bring with her, as the other two do, a type to play against for the amusement of us sophisticates. Instead, with her heavy makeup and bee-stung lips, exaggerated to the point of caricature, and her chic outfits, she is oracular Barbie: the perfect sex-object rendered utterly sexless. She has the bad-guy’s number; she’s in touch with the Feds; it is her absolution Dr Sands must seek, and she becomes the uncomplaining victim of the promiscuous gunplay around her. She is Beatrice or Gretchen in lipstick, the ewige Weibe with attitude — just as Duchovny is a regretful Faust in blue jeans and Hutton a boyish Mephistopheles, hoping to charm his way into a parole from hell.

None of this bears any relation to anything recognizable as reality, but you’ve got to admit that Wilson and Co are juggling the archetypes with an engaging brio. The real question is, is it worth $7.50 to watch them at it? Not of my money.

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