Published October 1, 1997
Devil’s Advocate, directed by Taylor Hackford to a script by Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy, is like Playing God in being a Hollywood version of the Faust legend. It is a more theologically sophisticated one, if ultimately no more successful. Al Pacino plays the devil under the name of “John Milton”—perhaps because this film comes closer than Playing God to getting right the quotation about reigning in hell versus serving in heaven. Keanu Reeves plays Kevin Lomax, a Faustian lawyer invited to join the devil’s law firm. Needless to say the compensation package is terrific. In its apparent shunning of the glittering temptations being held out to its hero, and its own advocacy of doing the right thing the film is certainly on the right track, morally speaking, which is more than you can say not only for Playing God but for most of Hollywood’s products these days. But its effectiveness is blunted by its inability to resist other kinds of Hollywood temptations.
Among these is the temptation for spectacular, computer generated visual effects that, no matter how much they cost, always look cheap to me. These are also the visual counterpart of Al Pacino’s overacting—which must have been foreseen by whomever had the bright idea of hiring him but is no less irksome for that. Moreover, the moral center of the action, which is Lomax’s resisting the devil’s temptation, is managed—by the cheapest of all cinematic tricks—in such a way as to enable him to fall as well. It’s always more fun to show temptation yielded to than resisted, so the film wants to have it both ways. Thus it also makes its moral points by inviting us to admire the naked flesh not only of the devil’s temptresses (Connie Nielsen and Tamara Tunie) but of Lomax’s hapless wife, Mary Ann (Charlize Theron), who is driven nuts by her husband’s spiritual degradation. All this is for moral purposes only, you understand.
And then there is a twist in the end which allows Lomax, having resisted one, to appear to fall prey to another temptation. Yet both temptations are conceived in such exaggerated form that they make Lomax’s experience too remote from us. The devil should not only be less theatrical, less Grand Guignol, he should also be more subtle in his offers, as he is in real life where people sell their souls for much less than Mr Reeves is offered. It would be nice to think that somebody in Hollywood understood the virtue of understatement, but if anybody actually does, he didn’t work on this picture, which is over the top in every conceivable respect. Even its morality is given an exaggerated presence in the form of Judith Ivey in the role of Lomax’s Bible-bashing mother, whose liaison with the devil while on a trip to NY with the young Baptists in 1966 is supposed to have produced Kevin. Now she considers New York to be the Babylon of Revelation: “Fallen, fallen Babylon the Great. . .It has become a place of demons.”
Yeah, well. If you believe that the authors of this film really believe that, you will believe anything. Thus, they show a fund raising party at NY law offices for Al D’Amato—as himself. Jeffrey Jones as Barzoon, the managing partner in the firm, introduces Lomax to the room full of people by saying: “Here they are: the top of the food chain, and dinner is served.” Later Don King appears as a personal friend of the devil. The whole thing is a joke to these celebrities, as it is to the filmmakers. “Welcome to Babylon, mom,” says Lomax when his mother comes to visit him. I don’t see how you can leave this joke in and still have the movie come out looking as if it meant a single word it says about resisting the devil.