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Don't Bother Opening This 'Gift'

By Curt Fields
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 19, 2001


    'The Gift' Cate Blanchett and Keanu Reeves in "The Gift." (Paramount)
When most people want to see exotic creatures, they head to the zoo. When Hollywood has the same urge, it heads to the South.

The latest example is "The Gift," which is so chock-full of stereotypes as to be a filmic Southern Country Safari. Let's see, there's the vicious wife-beating redneck, Donnie Barksdale (Keanu Reeves), and his he's-all-I-got wife, Valerie (Hilary Swank). And look, over there, it's the crazy loner mechanic, Buddy Cole (Giovanni Ribisi). And don't forget slutty rich girl Jessica King (Katie Holmes) and her affianced nice guy, Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear). And the star of this tour, Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett), a widowed mom raising three boys and supporting her family by doing psychic readings for the local townfolk.

The story revolves around Annie. She's trying to help Buddy and Valerie with their troubled lives. Annie's oldest son is having problems as well, which is how she meets Wayne, the school principal. Shortly thereafter someone ends up dead and, eventually, the local sheriff reluctantly turns to Annie and her "gift" for help.

Blanchett and Kinnear acquit themselves well in their roles. Perhaps because they portray the only two characters with any degree of shading to them. The rest of the cast is hamstrung by a hackneyed Billy Bob Thornton-Tom Epperson script. Ribisi fidgets uncontrollably, alternately screams and whispers and faithfully follows the unbalanced-but-good-hearted template. Reeves is menacing -- constantly -- and nothing else. Cliches are so rampant that when Annie tries to convince the sheriff that she had a vision pertinent to the case, he interrupts her to question a deputy about an eclair missing from a box of nearby doughnuts. Originality is clearly not a strong point with this script -- two different characters utter the line "What's the matter? You see somethin' bad?" By the second time, the audience's obvious reply is, "Oh yeah!"

Director Sam Raimi's approach is no less worn. He's been entertaining in the past with such films as "The Evil Dead" and "The Quick and the Dead." Unfortunately, instead of employing the touch he used in those films, he opts for the heavy-handed style he used in "For Love of the Game." Filmed around Savannah, Ga., "The Gift" repeatedly lingers on gnarled trees, Spanish moss and, of course, thunderstorms to remind the audience that "ooh, this is spooky." And during the obligatory "is there danger in the house" scene, anyone who's seen more than a couple of suspense films can anticipate every so-called surprise. Layer on a manipulative score and the effect is laughably ham-fisted.

When two-thirds through the film Wayne delivers the anguished line "It's not over," you'll feel his pain -- and look at your watch wistfully.

"The Gift" (R, 111 minutes) – Contains violence, brief nudity, profanity and a water-logged corpse.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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