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‘Jacob’s Ladder’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 02, 1990

What happens after you die? Well, you can go to the "good" place and be attended by angels. Or you can go to the "bad" place. The "bad" place, by all accounts, is no day at the beach -- fire, brimstone, reruns of "Love, American Style." Nothing, though, not even hell, could be as bad as "Jacob's Ladder."

The comparison isn't gratuitous. The subject of life and death -- specifically what happens to a young infantryman named Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) after he's rammed through the gut by a bayonet during the Vietnam War -- is the main topic of discussion here. And it's the film's pretentions to seriousness, to weighing in on the big issues, complete with quotations from Meister Eckhart and philosophizing angels, that inflame our full rancor.

"Jacob's Ladder" plays like an episode of "The Twilight Zone" that's been stuffed with little nuggets from someone's college theology lectures. There are bits of other movies and other stories -- such as "Carnival of Souls" and "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" -- jammed in as well. But we're getting ahead of ourselves, something that the movie is also guilty of -- ahead of itself, behind itself, beside itself.

The picture was shot by Adrian Lyne, who directed "Fatal Attraction," from a script by Bruce Joel Rubin, who wrote the screenplay for the mega-hit "Ghost" and who by now qualifies as the movies' leading authority on after-death issues. Their collaboration is indeed a fatal one; they've added a new circle to Dante's Inferno. A precis of the plot would give too much away, so let's say this: Jacob may be dead, or he may not be. All the weird stuff that keeps happening to him -- the closed subway station, the trains filled with ghoulish faces, the hospital attendant with something like a scary mole in her scalp -- may all be attributable to the aftereffects of an experiment the Army conducted with a powerful new drug called "The Ladder." We may, in fact, be witnessing yet another governmental atrocity. (A title after the movie implies as much.) Then again, maybe not.

Nothing in this befuddling, infuriating movie is what it seems, and nothing makes sense. We're told that Jacob has left his wife (Patricia Kalember) for another woman, a fiery Latino named Jezzie (short for Jezebel) played by Elizabeth Pena. But Jezzie may not actually exist -- at least not in the so-called "real" world. Still, traipsing around half naked, Jezzie seems entirely more substantial than Jacob, who fluctuates between catatonia and apoplexy. The note of panic in Robbins may come as a result of the actor's nervous desperation at having to find some motive for his actions. This is a big role for Robbins; he has more screen time here than in any other film. But because his scenes are grounded so firmly in unreality, it's not the showcase one might have hoped for.

Pena gives a churlish performance as Jacob's lover, but considering what she had to play, she seems hardly to blame. As with all the characters -- and all the film's action, for that matter -- her part turns out to be little more than a red herring. Danny Aiello shows up as Louis, a chiropractor who makes adjustments in Jacob's spine and, unsuccessfully, in the narrative's as well. He is the movie's explaining angel. What he tells Jacob is that sometimes when you cling too hard to life, angels seem like devils.

But Louis, how come that nurse has a thingy on her head?

Lyne works here in his characteristic hyperactive style. As a director, he's one of the new movie hysterics -- an overwrought group that includes Alan Parker, Oliver Stone and Joel Schumacher -- for whom no emotion ever falls within a normal range and no effect is too tortured. Here, Lyne indulges more in misdirection than in direction; he's a magician turning a sleazy trick. But even his technical skill breaks down. The picture is garbled and cliched, and Lyne can't do what he did in "Fatal Attraction," which is to establish the emotional underpinnings of the story -- here, the hero's corporeal attachments -- so that his fate has some meaning. He and Rubin may have felt they had something to say about our passage from this life to the next, but whatever it is doesn't come across.

"Jacob's Ladder" is rated R and contains some nudity, violence and gross-out horror movie stuff.

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