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'What Lies Beneath': A Shadow of Suspense

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 21, 2000


    'What Lies Beneath' Something spooky's going on with Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford. (DreamWorks)
Michelle Pfeiffer spends more time in the water than your average trout in "What Lies Beneath." If she isn't steeping in the tub, she's sinking in the lake. It's a wonder she doesn't grow gills and fins.

Director Robert Zemeckis knows how to employ scare tactics, but he hasn't mastered the art of suspense. There's a decidedly mechanical feel to this reasonably entertaining offshoot of Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window," "Rebecca" and "Suspicion." Then again, Zemeckis has little to work with in the sparse and implausible screenplay by stage actor-director Clark Gregg. But at least it's aimed at adults.

Similarly Pfeiffer and co-star Harrison Ford – ruggedly handsome in his latest horrible hairdo – are hobbled not only by the mystery's predictability but by the lack of a solid supporting cast. Characters are introduced only to vanish like vampires at sunrise.

Though Ford has top billing, he's almost a supporting player, with omnipresent Pfeiffer shouldering the weight of the movie. She's seldom off-screen in the role of Claire, the fragile wife of Dr. Norman Spencer (Ford). The filmmakers can't decide whether they want the character to be a regressive symbol of female vulnerability or a postmodern feminist finally breaking free. In other words, they want to put the blonde in the shower and still be politically correct.

Gradually, Claire comes into her own, and so does Pfeiffer, who doesn't seem to see herself as a weakling, to the detriment of her early scenes. Sending her only child off to college leaves Claire forlorn and weepy, maybe even crazy. To make matters worse, her husband, a genius geneticist hard at work on some project, spends little time at the couple's sprawling lakeside house.

When doors begin to open and close by themselves, the tub fills up all by itself and picture frames mysteriously shatter, Claire realizes she doesn't have the place to herself. Then she sees a blond wraith – guess where! – in the bathtub. Norman thinks she's still traumatized by a recent accident and sends her to a psychiatrist (Joe Morton), who suggests she ask the bogeywoman what she wants.

After attempting to contact the apparition – a green-eyed beauty who closely resembles her – Claire starts to find clues around the house and becomes obsessed with learning the spirit's identity. A few days later, she finds Norman conked out in that darned tub holding a hair dryer. Oooh, scary. Clearly, there's nothing Casperesque about this ghost.

Although Pfeiffer and Ford make a nice-looking, albeit slightly faded, middle-aged couple, they don't sizzle while necking on the porch, smooching in the sack or even catering to each other's needs on the dining table. Okay, so they've been married forever, he's been inattentive and she resents having abandoned her brilliant career for her family, but couldn't they fake it for our sake? We did our part and gasped at all the right places, and still, the only thing that gets steamy is the bathroom mirror.

Given the permissiveness of Hollywood, perhaps it's just as well. You never know what actors will do in the proximity of a commode these days. Then again maybe that was the filmmakers' idea of suspenseful.

WHAT LIES BENEATH (PG-13, 130 minutes) – Contains violence and adult subject matter.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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