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Give In to 'Panic'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 12, 2001


    'Panic' William H. Macy and Neve Campbells star in "Panic." (Artisan)
Reality is no friend of the movies. That's why "Panic," which trades openly on coincidence, improbability and downright lack of believability, is such inspired, sublime fun.

Well, make that fun dark, very dark. After all, in this movie, the taciturn, 40-something Alex (William H. Macy) is suffering a midlife crisis, feels emotionally dead, dallies with the idea of an extramarital affair with a bisexual 23-year-old (Neve Campbell) and works for his benevolent father (Donald Sutherland) as a hit man.

The story's very absurdities -- in the context of writer-director Henry Bromell's cool, understated movie -- feel so true, they're hard to shrug off. Things are so matter-of-fact, we accept them.

Early in the movie, for instance, the glum Alex stands at the kitchen sink with his mother (Barbara Bain). He's thinking of leaving the business, he tells her. What changes the tenor of this everyday conversation is the "business" they're talking about. Alex's mother -- Lady Macbeth meets Joan Crawford -- gently chastises her son for leaving a business that his father worked so hard to make -- as if she were talking about a corner grocery.

"You'll break his heart," she coos.

Alex, whose best friend is his sweet 6-year-old son, Sammy (David Dorfman), whom he loves regaling with funny stories at bedtime, has no one to talk to. His wife, Martha (Tracey Ullman), is completely in the dark about his murderous trade. She thinks her husband sells gadgets and marital aids. Of course, neither of his parents wants to hear about Alex's sudden change of heart.

So our tortured, gentle-hearted hit man walks into a shrink's office and starts blabbing. The nervous psychologist (John Ritter), who learns immediately what Alex does for a living, tells him that all mention of murder is protected by doctor-patient confidentiality. But if Alex discloses information about a pending murder, he'll have to go to the police. And a series of couch sessions begins, which may superficially mirror the pilot episode for "The Sopranos" or that shrink-and-the-mobster situation in "Analyze This," but which follows its own, original course.

It's on his first visit to the therapist that Alex meets Sarah (Neve Campbell), who has weekly sessions with another shrink in the same building. She's a force of nature. Completely open to the point of confrontational, she immediately strikes up an intimate conversation with Alex. But she makes Alex feel alive. He becomes infatuated with her, although he has no intention of leaving his wife and child. And Sarah isn't oblivious to his attention or naive about her doomed future with him.

Bromell, well-known as a fiction writer, writes and directs so well that your cynicism doesn't stand a chance. There's an amazingly deft scene in which Alex and Martha -- while shopping for their kid's birthday bicycle -- talk in subtextual code about their troubled relationship. Later at home, the mounting tension as Alex's parents berate little Sammy for throwing birthday gift wrap on the floor is almost unbearable.

The performances are uniformly good. Campbell shows there's more to her than bimbo turns in horror movies. And Bain and Ullman achieve much with small roles. Ritter, momentarily unrecognizable in beard and glasses, is a perfect schlemiel who sees an even darker agenda in the heart of his strange new patient.

But the movie belongs to Macy and Sutherland. Macy, the screen's poster child for postmodern harried men, exudes a lonely melancholia. Elegant and completely assured at what he does (we see his smoothly executed work early on), he's spiritually rotting from the inside. And we feel desperately for him.

Sutherland gives one of his most memorable performances, showing us multiple facets of his character's enigmatic soul. He shows the younger Alex how to shoot a squirrel with the gentle devotion of a father teaching his son fly-fishing. But he turns into a grinning specter of death when he persuades Alex to climb out of his funk and get back on the job. When he dispatches Alex on his next mission, "Panic" turns even darker than you thought possible. And as the movie starts chasing its own narrative tail, you hold on tightly because you know it's going to be a great ride.

PANIC (Unrated, 88 minutes) -- Contains murder, obscenity and sexual situations.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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