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'Devil's Advocate': Perfectly Evil

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 17, 1997

IN: Satan OUT: God

That is the premise of Taylor Hackford's preposterously entertaining "Devil's Advocate," in which Al Pacino gives the Devil his due and then some.

A wicked parable for a wicked age, the film presupposes a powerful Manhattan law firm in which the Big Guy Himself, Beelzebub, is the senior partner. His choppers gleaming, his eyes alight with the fire of a billion souls roasting in agony forever, his hair midnight-shiny with the self-confident Wildroot of all evil, Pacino plays John Milton (grad student symbolism alert: John Milton, 1608-1674, English poet who wrote "Paradise Lost"), Mr. Scratch in pinstripes. As his protein-rich hair and glossy smile attest, it's great work if you can get it.

The movie is in a genre that has nearly vanished from film culture: supernatural fantasy, ecclesiastical subset, the supreme work of which was "I Married a Witch" in 1942. But Hackford has a reactionary's adoration of old movie forms (remember his "An Officer and a Gentleman," the best service drama of 1946, except that it happened to be made in 1982). He shamelessly blasts ahead, as if he's made a deal with otherworldly powers. Hmmmm.

Unlike so many pagan entertainments that seem to have no moral center as they blow things up, this one in fact does. It's very small, but it's there: The Devil, it halfheartedly argues, is a bad person. Lust, avarice and bopping thy neighbor's wife are still no-nos, and if you decide they are for you, there will be consequences.

So underneath the fab performances and the computerized trickery by which people oozily morph into demons and then back to men in the blink of an eye, the movie is preaching that old-time religion. On the other hand, it doesn't have much confidence in God. He clearly needs a better stylist and wardrobe, and certainly a better publicist. He's nowhere to be seen, not even in the tabloids. In fact, his former acolyte offers the chilling Nietzschean proposition that He's really an absentee landlord. Theologically, the film says that God is here but He suffers from attention deficit disorder.

I am of course too highfalutin, too refined, too darn sensitive to resort to movie-crit-speak, but if I weren't, I might say that "Devil's Advocate" is "The Firm" meets "Rosemary's Baby," with a good deal more wit than either John Grisham or Ira Levin managed on their own. A tale of innocence struggling with corruption that could be traced back to Faust's first folly, the original Bad Career Move, it watches as talented, earnest but rather narrow country lawyer Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves, whose awkwardness helps rather than hurts his performance) is invited to New York, seduced by the hushed grandeur and the soft squish of big money in the offices of Milton Chadwick Waters and by the second reel has committed to Gotham's Big Law lifestyle. This includes a Park Avenue apartment with a hundred or so rooms, interesting cases, flashy, fleshy parties and rubbing shoulders with people who've clearly already sold their souls to get where they are. (Alfonse D'Amato, did you read the script before you agreed to appear? And . . . where's Howard Stern?)

But even as he is being mentored and semi-seduced by the glossy Milton and absorbed into the lifestyle of the demimonde, the natively bright Lomax is beginning to see through him. For one thing, the older man radiates carnality, a raptor's glee in the pleasures of the flesh. He's the Devil of too much testosterone and too little conscience, wildly seductive to both men (who emulate) and women (who succumb). He's polymorphous perversity in clothes by Armani. But the film is structured around legal and emotional issues.

The legal issue is Lomax's first big case, in which he must defend a Trump-like magnate (Craig T. Nelson) accused of murdering his wife and stepchild. Problem No. 1: The client's fingerprints are on the gun. Problem No. 2: The client is guilty as hell. This is the moral crux of the film and perhaps its cheapest shot: What is the lawyer's professional responsibility toward a client he knows to be guilty? It's a dilemma Kevin Lomax faces twice, and he always comes down on the side of professionalism, and is condemned by moralist Hackford for it. But the larger question isn't considered: We may hate the legal sleazoids who get bad boys off, but do we really want them throwing cases and serving, ipso facto, as judge and jury?

In the personal department, Lomax's marriage to petulant beauty Mary Ann (Charlize Theron) is foundering as he gives himself up to work and the possibility of temptation. She knows as well that she is losing him,but then things start happening to her much as they did to Mia Farrow's Rosemary in the Dakota all those years ago. Her health and sanity begin to wobble; her vulnerability grows, even as her husband's career is soaring. The movie is interesting in one of its most old-fashioned virtues, which is belief in the power of love. Kevin clings to the mushy goop of love as his last talisman against giving the Devil in the blue tie what that mean old boy wants so badly.

Not since the year the Orioles lost the pennant -- wait, that's this year, dammit! -- have the issues of Beelzebub v. the People been laid so bare. Daniel Webster himself couldn't have done it better, and if "Devil's Advocate" won't save any souls, it's great entertainment on the road to Hell.

Devil's Advocate is rated R for profanity and sexually graphic scenes.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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