Valley of indecision

A cynical comic edge can't justify spending 2 Days in the Valley

Los Angeles is an elastic city, the kind that people who have never been to feel comfortable projecting attributes on, usually based on nothing more than rumor, supposition, or a willingness to buy into popular cliches. Especially in the movies, it has the capacity to be all things for all tastes, from glamorous and glitzy to shallow and smothering. Only on rare occasion do we get a sobering opportunity to see the city as it really is for most of the people who actually live there. Nathaniel West portrayed it as a miserable dreamscape populated by self-deluding fringe dwellers in his classic novel, The Day of the Locust, and even Quentin Tarantino takes potshots at it in almost every script he has written, suggesting it holds the paradoxically complementary distinction as kitsch-and-drug capital of America. The cynical, salty view is almost always more interesting than the glittery one, if only because outside the gloss and sheen of Hollywood, L.A. is pretty much like every other metropolis: a largely suburban, surprisingly provincial wasteland dominated by the banality of smog, crime, and petty daily intrigues.

2 Days in the Valley begins promisingly along these lines, as if it might deliver a grimly sardonic exploration into the prosaic lives of a dozen Angelenos. As the characters are introduced--through a series of unrelated, abrupt scenes, where we can't tell exactly what's going on from one minute to the next--it has a lively, unpredictable energy. You can sense that there is method to the madness, and there is: a Byzantine mosaic of a murder mystery to which everyone eventually contributes a piece. But rather than presenting a clear picture of a city in all its complexity, by the end, 2 Days in the Valley touches on but doesn't actively pursue what should have been its primary focus: the grotesque, twisted perversities of the characters as they slowly emerge under stress. Instead, writer-director John Herzfeld merely shows himself excessively willing to resort to warmly overused contrivances in what amounts to a conventional romantic comedy, albeit one with a peculiar, slightly bloodthirsty bent.

2 Days in the Valley is more disappointing than the average failure because it's a near miss--not widely off the mark, but enough to imply how a more decisive conception of the subject matter would have made it something special. Herzfeld seems capable of writing interesting characters involved in amusingly bizarre situations; he gives the film an off-kilter edginess for a while, then he sacrifices it all on the altar of mushheaded, audience-pleasing devices.

It's not as though we were expecting much to begin with. Although his official press bio lists some exploitative TV movies, it wisely omits mention of the only other feature film he's directed: the justly vilified "comedy" Two of a Kind with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. But once he engenders our interest, it's almost unfair how cavalierly the cynicism is replaced by sentiment. Is it not inevitable that the gruff but lovable hitman (Danny Aiello) will fare better than the tight-assed art dealer (Greg Cruttwell)? Can the suicidal director (Paul Mazursky) really be expected to take his own life when he has such a cute Yorky to stare him down? (Overtly manipulating our emotions by using adorable dogs to generate a cuddly sense of sympathy for a character is almost as reprehensible as using the abuse of dogs to spotlight the villains.) Why, the very presence in the same room of two stunningly beautiful actresses (Teri Hatcher and Charlize Theron) practically begs for a catfight. And 2 Days in the Valley, almost by rote, trots out these scenes with clockwork dependability.

For his cynical comedic riffs to resonate as more than dull cliches, Herzfeld needs characters that put a fresh spin on the archetypes he is trying to lampoon, but they usually fall victim to easy description: Glenne Headly plays the mousy secretary, James Spader is a run-of-the-mill sociopath, Eric Stoltz and Jeff Daniels exchange shopworn dialogue in a stale variation of good cop-bad cop. Sometimes the casting itself stands in the way of achieving more than the script calls for. Daniels for one is as nondescript as actors come--a lazy casting director's dream and a greedy agent's nightmare. With his average looks and toneless voice, Daniels fits snugly in the background in film after film, more a piece of the furniture than a human being. He seems a questionable choice to play an erratic, troubled vice officer, if only because his ordinariness deprives him of an aura of genuine danger. He may embody the exact type of midlevel policeman that Herzfeld wants to explicate, but his scenes should roar with pain and the possibility of mental collapse, and Daniels' complete absence of charisma works against that.

Yet where Daniels has yet to make a lasting impression of any kind after 15 years in film, Gret Cruttwell, in only his second film (he was the abrasive millionaire in Naked), makes every part seem as if it was written expressly for him. A clipped, rudely presumptuous voice belies his reactive vulnerability; he always has a pained, almost regretful expression on his face that suggests he has just smelled something unpleasant but won't acknowledge it until he has proven he can ignore it longer than you. Herzfeld's script should have taken the time to treat his character as something more than an insufferable rich prig who deserves his comeuppance. You can't miss the fact that you're expected to cheer when Aiello makes Cruttwell sit on the floor, or when Aiello commandeers Cruttwell's precious custom-made suits. Cruttwell's talents are obviously underused as a result. (Newcomer Charlize Theron's classic femme fatale--in the Kim Novak, platinum-blonde vein--is the one character that works within the limitations the script provides, crawling around with catlike tread in her form-hugging suit like a panther stalking her next meal. The sheer animal intensity of her performance grabs you, and she plays it to the hilt.)

Although it nearly achieves a slippery, antisocial playfulness, in the end 2 Days in the Valley seems almost too hip, too knowing, and yet too predictable. It has been marketed as the successor to Pulp Fiction, but despite some passing surface similarities, it never approximates the same deep-seated daring. Pulp Fiction wasn't a great movie because it suddenly killed off major characters or because it bounced around in a wild time line or because it used humor to undercut breathtakingly brutal violence. Rather, it was the convergence of these elements and many more ineffable qualities that made it ring with originality. By setting out to recreate Pulp Fiction's sense of gonzo loopiness and then back-pedaling in key moments, 2 Days in the Valley misses the critical factor needed to establish its own identity. Someone should have realized that you can't manufacture the thrill of a novel idea once someone else has beat you to the punch and done a better job of it.

2 Days in the Valley. MGM/Rysher Entertainment. James Spader, Eric Stoltz, Danny Aiello, Teri Hatcher, Greg Cruttwell, Charlize Theron, Marsha Mason, Paul Mazursky, Glenne Headly, Jeff Daniels. Written and directed by John Herzfeld. Now showing.

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