To Catch a Thief
Zemeckis rips off Hitchcock in his would-be tribute 'What Lies Beneath'
By Nicole McEwan
AFTER TOM HANKS and Robin Williams, Harrison Ford is undoubtedly the most vanilla A-list actor in Hollywood today--which may partially explain his participation in What Lies Beneath--an agonizingly trite ghost story so implausible that it makes the overrated Sixth Sense make sense.
A patently derivative mishmash of classic scary movies like Psycho and Rosemary's Baby, the Robert Zemeckis-directed flick sets Ford up as Dr. Norman Spencer, a college professor working overtime to complete an important research project. While Norman slaves away at the lab, his wife, Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer), keeps the Martha Stewartesque gleam of perfection aglow at their sumptuously appointed lakefront home. Her efforts in maintaining this gorgeous Vermont Victorian should not be underappreciated--if you find yourself bored in some of the film's slower bits, perusing the set passes the time quite nicely.
Having just sent her only child off to college, Claire, formerly a Juilliard-trained cellist, is suffering from empty-nest syndrome. Depression hardly has a chance to settle in, however, because all sorts of strange things begin to happen. First, the apparition of a beautiful young woman walks out of the lake (with lush production values like this it makes sense that this ghost is supermodel Amber Valletta). Soon things are going bump in the night, including the next-door neighbors.
In a voyeuristic setup straight out of Hitchcock's Rear Window, Claire thinks she may have witnessed someone's death. Naturally, staid scientist-hubby Norman is a wee bit of a skeptic. Before you know it, Claire is seeing a shrink. Eventually she even consults a Ouija board in an attempt to defend her sanity. Of course, the ghost isn't simply on a holiday from the underworld--it is feeding Claire clues that might point to what really happened.
By this point, Clark Gregg's threadbare script has so lazily telescoped its story that there's really no doubt as to what will happen next. But given the genre, this should have represented only a minor handicap for a seasoned filmmaker like Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Back to the Future). Yet instead of ingenuity, we get a barrage of visual clichés. The chills are of the peekaboo variety: people popping into a frame unexpectedly may make you jump in your seat once or twice, but such overt manipulation ultimately wears thin.
To her credit, Pfeiffer, who has the lion's share of screen time, turns in a fearless performance, even as she's jumping through Scream-style hoops to evade the bad guy. Ford does get to break out of his mold, but overall this level of talent seems wasted in such a B-movie trifle.
Moreover, the film's endless references to Hitchcock (including Alan Silvestri's Bernard Herrmann-like score) prompt the question: What is homage and what is simply a series of ripoffs? By the time the film's final half-hour slides into near-parody, the answer should be apparent to even a casual filmgoer. Zemeckis has created what he may have intended as an homage to Hitchcock, widely known as the Master of Suspense; unfortunately, What Lies Beneath doesn't deliver any. Suspense, that is.
From the July 27-August 2, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
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