By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2005
It's hard to believe that just two years ago Adrien Brody was laying a big, sloppy one on Halle Berry and scooping up an Oscar for Best Actor for his magnificent performance in Roman Polanski's "The Pianist." "The Jacket," Brody's latest movie, should serve as a cautionary tale to ambitious young actors everywhere, providing the thespian version of the old real estate dictum "location, location, location." In this case, the adage would go something like "material, material, material," also known as the Nicolas Cage Rule: Good acting can't overcome bad taste.
Here, Brody plays Jack Starks, a 1991 Persian Gulf War veteran who, after barely recovering from a bad head wound, returns as an amnesiac to his native Vermont. There, in a bleak snowscape in which menace lurks behind every slush-spattered drift, Starks is party to a number of weird, unsettling encounters, one of which ends in a murder.
He's fingered for the crime, then carted off to a mental institution where a creepy doctor named Becker (Kris Kristofferson) pumps him full of drugs and puts him into a bloodstained straitjacket (the fitter is actually a nurse played by Mackenzie Phillips, which is somehow scarier). While undergoing Becker's treatment, which involves shoving the patient into a morgue drawer, Starks experiences a series of visions in which past and future collide, with the ultimate effect of transporting him into a parallel life.
There won't be much new in "The Jacket" for viewers familiar with everything from "Jacob's Ladder" to "The Butterfly Effect" to "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." Indeed, compared with the last film, this pallid exercise plays more like a gloomy, mindless eternity.
Fans of the lissome Keira Knightley ("Bend It Like Beckham," "Pirates of the Caribbean") won't recognize her behind the pots of dark hair dye, Gothish eyeliner and mumbly American accent she immersed herself in to play -- and often overplay -- Starks's love interest. And filmgoers who, like this critic, have never gotten on the Jennifer Jason Leigh bandwagon aren't likely to change their opinion on the basis of her performance as a doctor who may or may not be in Starks's corner.
That corner, like everything else about the hospital where he is confined, would probably be a washed-out teal color, raising the question why directors insist on filming psychiatric institutions as if through green aspic. "The Jacket's" director, John Maybury, made a wonderful movie a few years ago called "Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon," in which he photographed that painter's world in a way that captured his distorted artistic visions. Here, Maybury is just arty for art's sake, filming entire scenes in close-ups so big that viewers leave the theater knowing way more than they ever wanted to about the lead actors' bridgework.
Which brings us back to Brody (healthy gums, some lower anterior crowding) and what might be one of the greatest screen faces in contemporary cinema. Long, sad, dominated by a nose with the arch and thrust of a flying buttress on Notre Dame, Brody's face is almost too expressive for roles like Starks, who should otherwise be a sort of anonymous Everyman. There might have been a time when we'd buy Brody in that role, but those days are over. He's a star -- ask Berry -- and more important, he's a good actor. He deserves to claim both titles, at least when it comes to material, material, material.