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John Sayles's Less-Than-Sterling 'Silver City'

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 17, 2004; Page C05

Hmmm, you probably thought "Silver City" was a Chris Cooper movie.

So did I. Cooper as a comic clone of President Bush, fumbling his way ever upward? Sounds pretty amusing.

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But no, it's not.

So possibly you thought it was a Richard Dreyfuss movie. Dreyfuss as a dynamic political adviser, with the guile of Rove and the chutzpah of Carville? Boy, wouldn't that be a hoot? Not here.

Then maybe it's a Kris Kristofferson movie. Kristofferson has become the Bad Guy of John Sayles's recent oeuvre, and here's a chance for him to really strut as a rich, clever Colorado millionaire manipulator. Uh-uh.

These three, as well as Maria Bello, Thora Birch, Michael Murphy, Daryl Hannah, Mary Kay Place, Miguel Ferrer and Tim Roth, are all in "Silver City," if only for a few minutes each.

But it turns out that "Silver City" is a Danny Huston movie.

Who the hell is Danny Huston? Well, as the name suggests he's the half-brother of Anjelica, the son of John and the grandson of Walter. His pedigree, therefore, is fabulous. But his screen presence is baffling. And Sayles's selection of him as the linchpin for his ambitious satire of American political foibles is equally baffling.

Huston, who has an extremely ingratiating screen presence but hardly a dynamic one, plays the reluctant investigator Danny O'Brien, formerly of the Denver Monitor, who was duped in a set-up and fired. It seems that certain of his reported facts weren't backed by witnesses. It wasn't his fault, of course. He's the victim. The reporter is always the victim.

Anyhow, he lost his job, his self-respect and his girlfriend (she's still at the Monitor and dating a PR guy), and his new girlfriend has just left him when he gets a big chance at the low-rent private eye firm where he toils bleakly.

It seems that the nefarious, notorious, odious, obnoxious, scurrilous gubernatorial campaign of, just in case you miss the point, Dickie Pilager (Pilager: pillager, get it?) needs an investigator. The notoriously clumsy Pilager (Cooper, in the movie briefly) was filming an ad at a pristine Colorado lake, and he flicked a trout rod and pulled in a stiff. Not good for the image! The campaign (i.e. Dreyfuss's Chuck Raven) thinks this tasteless prank was engineered by one of Dickie's many enemies, and they want Danny to visit each of the usual suspects and tell him to mind his P's and Q's. Of course, this isn't credible as a narrative ploy: They'd need a strong-arm guy, an ex-state trooper or cop, instead of an extremely goofy and likable schlemiel like Danny.

Nevertheless, Danny sets out, and as he roams through Dickie Pilager's enemies list -- his nympho sister, a right-wing radio DJ, an environmental activist -- he begins to see a pattern. Maybe the body placement wasn't part of a prank but . . . a plot.

Now and then "Silver City" stirs to life, but its pleasures are incidental rather than cumulative. As the nympho sister, Hannah has a nice scene and she gets along fabulously with the hapless Danny. Dreyfuss is always amusing; and when he's bumbling, stumbling, groping and moping on-camera, Cooper is quite funny. Place has a funny, exasperated turn as Danny's employer, who has no confidence in him whatsoever, and as it works out, that lack of confidence is entirely justified.

But the plot is slow to assemble; it's like a Philip Marlowe novel written without an outline, involving immigrant workers, toxic waste, real estate development, bitter families, political cunning and the tendency of media ownership to be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. But Sayles isn't as deft as Raymond Chandler or any of the screenwriters who cobbled his labyrinthine plots into films; his pieces stay largely separate.

Danny's journey from burnout act to some kind of hero is sweet, and it's all but impossible to dislike Huston. The movie, nevertheless, would have been better served with a more dynamic hero and a leaner, darker plot.

Silver City (133 minutes, at Landmark E Street ) is rated R for profanity.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company