Second-hand thrills

Two great actresses get stuck holding the Xerox in Copycat

If you had any doubts that the Hollywood script factory has run out of things to say about serial killers, Copycat stumbles into theaters like a badly miscalculated pratfall.

Indeed, everything about this unimaginatively directed, awkwardly structured, but expertly performed thriller suggests filmmaking by committee, too many hands converging to create a villain that fits the barebones psychological profile of a serial killer but doesn't flesh it out. Even the title becomes an amusing pun on the pallid imitation-shock moments that bounce off weary audience members like Nerf balls.

Ever since Jonathan Demme's film version of Thomas Harris' The Silence of the Lambs captured the country's imagination four years ago, we have pretty high expectations of psychotic criminals. Lambs terrified so many people simply because it offered an articulate, urbane, even charming worldview of homicide, via Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter. This is why the 1994 Brad Pitt vehicle Kalifornia flopped, because Pitt's murderer was a thick-tongued, hayseed homunculus who suggested he could be bamboozled by the old "Your shoe's untied" trick. Conversely, this is why Pitt's latest film Seven currently rules at the box office--because the killer in that one is character actor Kevin Spacey, a hilariously prissy, moralistic loner with a World Lit 101 fetish and an impatience with the general state of humanity.

Without revealing the Copycat culprit's identity, which is exposed halfway through the movie and is, even at that point, incidental to most of the action, let's just say he's a frustrated, impotent mama's boy who's less frightening than irritating. When he finally lets loose his reign of terror against the protagonists at the film's close, you can't help but feel you're on a blind date that's gone horribly wrong.

For reasons we'll respectfully withhold, he becomes obsessed with Dr. Helen Hudson (Sigourney Weaver), a nationally renowned author and criminal psychologist who's been a prisoner in her San Francisco apartment for months. Weaver only barely survived an attack by one of her subjects, a leering, snaggle-toothed, goggle-eyed good ol' boy named Darryl Lee Cullum (Harry Connick Jr.). Now Dr. Hudson is an anxiety-ridden agoraphobic who swigs bourbon, pops pills, and communicates with the rest of the world via her computer modem. Her professional wisdom is sought by a pair of San Francisco police officers named Monahan and Goetz (Holly Hunter and Dermot Mulroney), who are currently investigating a series of brutal rapes and murders around the Bay area.

In a way, Copycat feels like a retread of the psychologically driven formula in Silence of the Lambs and Michael Mann's Manhunter with just a few pieces rearranged: instead of an imprisoned, brilliant maniac who plays games with the police while they track another killer, we get an imprisoned, brilliant victim whose stalker plays games with her while the police track him.

The film's chief sources of pleasure are the smart, energetic performances by Weaver and Hunter, whose wildly different onscreen styles mix like oil and water. Writers Ann Biderman and David Madsen were wise to create their characters with this chemical combination in mind. In many ways, they simply play true to their established types--Hunter is scruffy, smart-ass, and chomps cheeseburgers, while Weaver is the regal, opera-loving intellectual starting to fray around the edges--but both are riveting when their characters butt heads over the methodology of tracking a murderer.

Somebody needs to tell British director Jon Amiel (whose most famous American film to date is the lukewarm Jodie Foster weeper Sommersby) that the hoariest device in thrillerdom is the stalker secretly spying on oblivious prey. A hand-held camera used as the killer's point-of-view from between curtains, through blinds, and around corners is a constant in Copycat. We're supposed to be made tense by assuming the murderer's vision, not knowing what he's thinking, or when he'll lose control and descend on his victim. The problem is, thanks to overexposure in movies and the news media, psychopaths swathed in mystery feel incomplete to us. We want perversely detailed motives and twisted personal histories so we can freak out trying to imagine what might be going on in their heads. In Copycat, the heavy-breathing loser who spies on Sigourney Weaver seems just as likely to invade her underwear drawer as cut her throat.

Copycat. Warner Brothers. Sigourney Weaver, Holly Hunter, Harry Connick Jr. Written by Ann Biderman and David Madsen. Directed by Jon Amiel. Opens October 27.

 
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