The Devil's Advocate Review

by Alex Fung (aw220 AT FreeNet DOT Carleton DOT CA)
December 2nd, 1997

THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE (Warner Bros. - 1997)
Starring Keanu Reeves, Al Pacino, Charlize Theron, Jeffrey Jones, Judith Ivey, Connie Neilsen, Craig T. Nelson
Screenplay by Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy, based on the novel by Andrew Neiderman
Produced by Arnold Kopelson, Anne Kopelson, Arnon Milchan Directed by Taylor Hackford
Running time: 144 minutes

    *** (out of four stars)
    Alternate Rating: B

Note: Some may consider portions of the following text to be spoilers. Be forewarned.

    Given current popular sentiment, it's almost a cliche to depict lawyers as the underlings of Satan, but such is the case in Taylor Hackford's THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE, a delightfully glorious romp that begins with a simmer and culminates with a devastatingly impudent climax, only to ultimately boil over with a disappointingly
    unsatisfying conclusion.

    The protagonist of THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE is young defense attorney Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves), who seems to have everything going for him at the film's opening: a beautiful wife Mary Ann (Charlize Theron), and perhaps most importantly from his perspective, a thriving and successful practice. Kevin's courtroom record is unblemished, and it doesn't take long to understand why in an audaciously funny opening sequence which sees him defending a schoolteacher charged with molestation. As victimized schoolgirl Barbara (Heather Matarazzo, perfectly cast as the hapless, awkward witness -- I kept waiting for the jury to burst into a spontaneous chorus of "Wiener Dog!") recounts her accusation, any question Kevin may have of his client's innocence vaporizes when the defendant virtually salivates in arousement at her tale. Nonetheless, Kevin puts aside any moral qualms to ruthlessly cross-examine Barbara and ultimately win his client's acquittal.

    Kevin's good, but there's only so far he's going to go in
    Gainesville, Florida. Fortunately, a bigger fish has been keeping a watchful eye on his progress, and soon enough Kevin is lured by a flatteringly generous offer and lushly exorbitant new Fifth Avenue digs to New York, where he joins the powerful firm of Milton, Chadwick and Waters. Falling under the wing of enigmatic senior partner John Milton (Al Pacino), Kevin is put on the fast track to the top with a series of difficult and intriguing defense cases and becomes single-mindedly devoted to his work, oblivious of Mary Ann's slow meltdown.

    Although it's not explicitly revealed until the end of THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE, it's quite apparent from the outset (and the promotional trailers for the film make no attempts to hide this fact) that Milton is the Devil. Even Milton himself performs little subterfuge to disguise his alter-ego, continually emphasizing his demonic qualities with his wild-eyed stares and gleeful looks -- I particularly liked the scene in the restaurant where he adjusted his dress shirt collar up to resemble the traditional devil's cloak. While in this respect THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE is fun in its recklessness, I wonder how the film would have played out had it been more coy with its
    machinations. Due not only to the promotion of the film, but of the horrific hallucinations undergone by Mary Ann relatively early on, there's no real sense of intrigue and no involvement required in order to decipher what's occurring in the film; it's simply nothing more than a thrill ride. As the conclusion of THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE nears, only Kevin is in the dark with respect to Milton's true nature, and his ignorance comes across more as incredulous than sympathetic.

    Still, Mr. Pacino makes the devilish role his own, and this is a terrific piece of casting for THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE. While a few actors come to mind as possessing the sort of look and acting chops to portray the Prince of Darkness -- Jack Nicholson, for one, and I could certainly envision a demonic Jeremy Irons -- Mr. Pacino is perfect in the part because he makes The Devil so much, for lack of a better word, fun. This is the perfect outlet for the scenery-chewing which has been plaguing many of his recent performances; here, such an over-the-top approach is entertainingly beneficial, as opposed to a hindrance. By the end of the film, I was basking in wicked delight at Milton's unrestrained theatrical rants, and blasphemously rooting as much for Mr. Pacino's witty Antichrist as I was for Mr. Reeves' bland hero.

    Mr. Pacino seems to relish every minute of his role, and delves into the part with great enthusiasm. He's way over the top with his now-customary bellowing, grandiose gestures, and plenty of demonic grins galore, while Mr. Reeves, despite a Southern accent which wavers into every third reel and then abruptly disappears, does some of the best work I've ever seen from him. His physical performance severely outclasses his line delivery -- he often recites his dialogue with distractingly little conviction -- but he's not a liability here.

    Ms. Theron's attempt at a Southern accent is far better (particularly considering she's from South Africa), but it's disappointing that she's saddled with such a generic and uninteresting role: the obligatory wife who cries neglect (although at least in THE
    DEVIL'S ADVOCATE she gets to combine this with the person-in-the-know staple). She often has a startling resemblance to Ashley Judd, which is perhaps emphasized all the more in that her performance in the film echoes back to some of Ms. Judd's earlier work -- Ms. Theron's scene in a church is eerily similar to Ms. Judd in NORMA JEAN & MARILYN, while Ms. Theron's portrayal of her character's breakdown is brings back memories of Ms. Judd's emotional volatility in John McNaughton's NORMAL LIFE.

    Judith Ivey's role, as Kevin's mother, is even more frustratingly generic: a bible-thumper whose purpose it is to serve on the polar opposite axis to all of the film's demonic aspects. You dread her solemn recitation of some gravely-worded scripture-referenced warning, because you know she's ultimately going to be proven correct. Still, as insufferable as her character is, it's worth it for a deliciously funny scene where Mrs. Lomax and Milton awkwardly share an elevator ride.

    THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE builds up to a wonderful, if excessively visually extravagant, conclusion which is deliriously operatic in nature and genuine high camp in style. I was stunned and thrilled by the sheer fearless temerity of the film's climax -- no American film had delivered such a similarly nihilistic knockout blow which left me as thunderstruck since David Fincher's SE7EN -- so I was consequently crestfallen that the film badly drops the ball and kicks it away with a final coda which can only be classified as condescending and absurd. After teasing at a provocative and daring conclusion, THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE buckles under and provides an epilogue which lacks a fraction of the bite.

    Technically, THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE is terrific to look at: Andrzej Bartkowiak's cinematography is superb, and the much-ballyhooed production design by Bruno Rubeo is extremely impressive, from the spectacular rooftop scene to the inventive design of Milton's office. The film is cast remarkably well, although I'd have liked to see Delroy Lindo (curiously unbilled as a animal-sacrificing voodoo practitioner whom Kevin defends) and Craig T. Nelson (as Alexander Cullen, a smarmy real-estate tycoon whom Kevin defends on a murder charge) swap roles.

    Mr. Hackford's helming on THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE is generally solid, although the film's build-up is a bit too long. There are too many scenes which involve Mary Ann complaining about neglect and Kevin defending himself, and a sequence where Jeffrey Jones' Eddie Barzoon character on the run from Milton is particularly ineffective, given that his fate is a foregone conclusion. Mr. Hackford also goes a bit overboard with the use of time-lapse photography to generate an ominous atmosphere, showing days and nights on each other's heels as storm clouds zip through the sky. Once or twice is enough, but after this technique is reused over and over, I felt like I was watching a 7th grade science class film, and was hoping that he might insert time-lapse footage of a seedling sprouting from the earth and blooming into a flower or something of that sort.

    All the same, THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE is good fun for the most part and it's highly amusing to watch Mr. Pacino run rampant in a film which provides the proper context for his unbridled theatrics. There's a scene where alluring Christabella (Connie Nielsen) interrupts a gleeful Milton rant with an unamused "Shut up. You talk too much." What, and lose the most entertaining element of the film?

    - Alex Fung
    email: [email protected]
    web :

Alex Fung ([email protected]) | "Don't leave this girl alone with any handsome deaf-mutes Marty, that's my advice to you." - Parker Posey, THE HOUSE OF YES

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