The 18 1/2 Philadelphia Film Festival’s opening night film: Law Abiding Citizen
As I said in my review of Year One, sometimes the way an actor or a director chooses to promote his new film on a talk show reveals all you need to know about the movie itself. Jamie Foxx, the star of F. Gary Gray’s new thriller Law Abiding Citizen, amidst the two segments (11 minutes) he had on Conan O’Brien’s late night show on Monday, spent one whole minute talking about the movie. Thirty seconds were spent describing the plot, fifteen seconds was spent telling the crowd (more specifically “ladies”) that co-star and producer Gerard Butler gets naked in the movie, and the last fifteen seconds were spent on Foxx’s gay panic, trying to distance himself from wanting to look at Gerard Butler’s naked butt.
Gay panic and homophobia are nothing new for Foxx, his stand-up act has often been littered with it (in between magazine photo shoots where he frequently appears oiled up and naked, I’m sure there’s no connection), but it’s quite a curiosity to use your national air time to talk about a movie you probably spent, with script approval, shooting, and post-production, at least a year making, by discussing your co-star’s nudity, especially in a movie with no sex in it. Maybe Foxx knew what he was doing, if you watched his facial expression during his Conan interview, he barely had any emotion when describing his character as the District Attorney. And that’s probably for the best because it proves that he didn’t believe him in the role either.
While watching Law Abiding Citizen, in which Butler seeks revenge on everyone who was part of the plea bargain that resulted in less than reasonable punishment for his family’s killers (it’s 10 years later, and the only apparent way to show aging is by giving Foxx a mustache), it may occur to you that the movie might have worked better if the two leads had switched roles. Certainly Butler would have had more credibility as the DA than Foxx, who seems to think he’s an action hero, not a lawyer. Foxx delivers his lines as if he didn’t have a clue that a DA would likely be well-spoken and educated, but he wouldn’t have worked as the revenge-minded killer either (not that the studio would have let him, racial considerations certainly came into play). Foxx is limited as an actor, he can scowl (Miami Vice), do impressions (Ray), or play around in the pursuit of low-brow humor (Booty Call), but he can’t let us know what he’s thinking, except through exaggerated facial expressions which makes it hard to fathom him playing a character with depth or insight.
So it’s just as well that Law Abiding Citizen doesn’t have any insight or characters for Foxx to fail to play. The movie is all plot mechanics and inadvertent right-wing political messages (you may get the urge to look for Dick Cheney’s name in the credits, but somehow, he’s not there), where an eye-for-an-eye is not only considered, but encouraged. Law Abiding Citizen’s gimmick is to have Butler’s character, Clyde, kill people after he’s already been arrested, with Foxx and his staff powerless to stop the murders that Butler tells them about. And it seems that’s where writer Kurt Wimmer (Ultraviolet, Equilibrium) put the keyboard down. Wimmer never figures out how we’re supposed to feel about Clyde, first we pity him as he had to watch his wife and child be raped and murdered in front of him, and as he gets his revenge, it’s never clear where he’s gone too far, is the judge who agreed to the plea bargain culpable? What about the cops who botched the forensics? Maybe the court clerk for filing the paperwork?
The dialogue is no help either, just a series of clichés (an exasperated mayor opines “the press is gonna kill us!”) and automated responses to the sloppily put together story. Sloppy is not even harsh enough, random, anything-for-a-thrill, etc. Which would be fine if there were thrills, but each scene ignores the rules established by the previous one and while going over-the-top into the land of ridiculous might have worked, Gray and Wimmer play Law Abiding Citizen completely safe, opting for the goal of domestic bliss (taken away from Butler and given to Foxx), instead of the horrifying and/or funny. It’s not that the movie needs a big downer of an ending or a more dour tone, but the way it plays now, it’s like Seven without the brooding or style, or The Cell without wild visuals, or Saw without the traps. Law Abiding Citizen doesn’t even get creative with the kills, it’s a bunch of shooting and explosions (aside from a geyser of blood in a sequence that is simply thrown in for a gross-out shock, but smacks of desperation) and there’s no suspense in the courtroom scenes. Even the ending, which might have had the hint of audaciousness, relies on a plot contrivance so asinine and requires a staggering combination of forethought on Butler’s part and incompetence and ignorance on the prison’s part, that you may have to see it again to believe it wasn’t some sort of silly dream sequence.
Law Abiding Citizen has gotten a lot of local attention as it was shot in Philadelphia and is the opening film for the 18 ½ Philadelphia Film Festival. Festival crowds tend to root for local films (even one as inappropriately scheduled as Law Abiding Citizen), and so while tonight’s two showings are likely to be met with some forced enthusiasm, the proper reaction to the movie won’t be heard at least until it opens in theaters on Friday. Sure, every moment of Law Abiding Citizen is idiotic, morally repugnant, and slapdash, but along with the Nicholas Cage sci-fi vehicle Knowing, it’s the funniest movie of the year. You could see it now and be depressed or, and this is my recommendation, wait until it finds its true place as a camp classic and starts playing the midnight show circuit.