Palmetto
Director: Volker Schlöndorff. Cast: Woody Harrelson, Elisabeth Shue, Gina Gershon, Tom Wright, Chloë Sevigny, Michael Rapaport, Rolf Hoppe. Screenplay: E. Max Frye (based on the novel Just Another Sucker by James Hadley Chase).


Palmetto is one of those movies you have to feel a little sorry for. Too idiosyncratic to have much hope of success, tossed off in the late winter box-office burial ground, destined to be rememembered—if at all—as a marginal effort of a celebrated world-class director . . . Palmetto already has plenty of factors weighing against it before the lights even go down. Certainly this strange, plot-torqued Florida neo-noir is miles away from great, even from being particularly good, and the closing chapter of the movie is disappointingly proficient at weathering away most of the interesting material that director Volker Schlöndorff and his eclectic cast had built up in the preceding hour and a half.

That said, though, Palmetto is rewarding and entertaining in its own bizarre way, playing quite successfully especially during its middle half as a sort of comedy without any punchlines. The movie, scripted by Something Wild's E. Max Frye, is one of those potboilers where a beautiful woman finds just the right loser in just the right bar to carry out The Perfect Kidnapping, all for a nice big entrée of much-needed cash and maybe a little heavy petting as gravy.

Typical to reviews of this kind of picture is the phrase that "everything in the characters' plans goes wrong," but Palmetto scores its biggest, boldest points in actually allowing everything to go spectacularly, incredibly wrong. It sounds like a backhanded compliment (and maybe it is one), but in Woody Harrelson's Harry Barber, Palmetto has one of the most convincingly, fascinatingly stupid protagonists to come stumble the pike in a while.

Not since the sublimely dumb and dumber Steve Buscemi and William H. Macy of Fargo—the movie of which Palmetto sometimes want to be the sexier, slicker twisted sister—has a kidnapper been so monumentally ill-suited to the job. Harry, a former journalist in Palmetto, Florida, has just been released from jail, where he spent two years after being framed by the corrupt Palmetto politicos he aimed to expose in his paper. You'd think the poor guy would do anything possible to steer clear of trouble, particularly since his girlfriend Nina has waited patiently for his release and looks just like Gina Gershon.

Harry, though, frustrated in his attempts to find honest work, instead wipes the drool of his lips as Rhea Malroux (Elisabeth Shue) sashays into the local bar's telephone booth and conspicuously forgets her handbag as she slinks back out. Did I mention the big clip of $50 and $100 bills that he finds in that handbag? (Let's say he just happened to notice it there.)

Rhea joins Harry for a drink, pulls out a cigarette that she refuses to light, and offers him a job that she refuses to describe until they can meet the next day—in private. Harry—and this is our first clue that all his mental pistons are not firing—smitten. Meanwhile, Gina Gershon waits at home welding and cutting her modish metal sculptures, apparently hoping to canonized in the Jennifer Beals Hall of Fame for the world's most improbable steelworkers.

None of it, of course, makes much sense, and nor do many of the identity switcheroos, unlikely alliances, and other plot-twists; while, to give credit where it is due, some of these revelations are genuinely clever surprises, most it not all of them would be impossible in real life and, in fact, only possible in a movie that gambles its entire forward momentum on subverting the reality of what we thought we had already seen, or been told.

Unfortunately, Pamletto makes a similar mistake to recent fare like The Usual Suspects and the likewise Florida-set Just Cause in forgetting that plot twists do not a movie make. The replacing of one scenario the audience doesn't care much about with another to which they are equally detached doesn't get a film anywhere dramatically. Plot twists—and many, many a screenwriter should have this impressed upon their brains—only work if they serve to reveal something incisive about the characters involved (i.e., the sublime revelations of The Crying Game) or to complicate or deepen the import of what is being investigated (L.A. Confidential, for example).

So if on so many levels Palmetto seems fairly misguided, why does it still provide two hours of solid entertainment? The answer is in Schlöndorff's inspired sense of style and tone. Many films restrict themselves uncomfortably to one tone or mood in hopes of becoming generically legible: I'm thinking of mysteries in which every character must speak "mysteriously," period dramas which center every exchange around delicate mannerisms, or Simpson-Bruckheimer thrillers where every scene must reach its own fulsome climax of pyromechanical eruption.

In Palmetto, Schlöndorff allows for a pleasing and surprising heterogeneity of tones. His is a thriller where not every scene is required to thrill, a movie that often trips over its own plottiness and yet allows for gestures or moments that have nothing to do with plot. Again, the penultimate example of this adventurous spirit from recent American film is Fargo, with scenes such as Marge's seemingly arbitrary mid-film reunion with a high-school classmate.

Schlöndorff doesn't prove anywhere near as inventive as the Coens (who does?) but I nonetheless admired his willingness to shape a film that is more than just the tonal composite of its individual scenes. In the midst of his tensest sequences, he interjects an uproarious sight-gag with a typewriter, and later adds another with a wig and a coat-pocket. He does not require his buffoonish hero to grow any cannier as the stakes around his behavior are raised, and he even manages a cheeky and telling commentary on the phenomenon of "casting."

Many disparaging remarks have been written about Schlöndorff's deployment of his cast, particularly in allegations that Shue and Gershon should have switched roles and played the more type-specific ingenue and harlot, respectively. What these criticisms to me seem to disregard is that much of what prevents the plot of Palmetto from working—and I mean the plot in the film, not the plot of it—is that too many of its characters are trying to be what they are not. To take one example, Shue's Rhea, who struggles with her husky line deliveries, and whose attempts to project an earthy, bust-out-hips-wide sensuality seem grotesque and exaggerated, is not an example of a miscast actress in friction with the demands of her role. Anyone who has seen Shue's other recent film work or read her in interviews knows that she is smarter than these critiques allow.

Rather, Rhea herself is ill-suited to the femme fatale role she has assumed to entice Harry; this point is underscored not just by Shue's savvy overplaying but by the character's panicky reincarnations as Little Girl Lost and as spooked-out Norma Desmond toward the end of the picture. Rhea is a completely unintegrated personality who cannot decide which version of herself to show the world: she, not Schlöndorff, is her own worst director.

So, Palmetto is a wayward, forgettable thriller that nonetheless gets plenty of points for tonal sophistication and a true appreciation for human self-delusions and behavioral inconsistencies. I'd much rather watch Palmetto, which knows its own limitations but makes itself interesting in that context, than a film like The Usual Suspects, which takes itself entirely seriously but offers even less in terms of plot or character for the audience to care about. Just because Harrelson, Shue, and Schlöndorff have all done better, more ambitious work in the past does not divest Palmetto of any and all cinematic value. Tacky, sudsy fun, especially that which allows some skilled craftsmen to stretch new muscles, also deserves a place in our cinemas. B–


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