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‘Jennifer Eight’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 06, 1992

In the spirit of Ross Perot (remember him?), it's time to stick a pin in the bloated incumbency. I'm not talking politics. I refer to the Hollywood crime thriller, a holdover from the '80s pumped up with enough hype to launch a zeppelin. Instead of keeping to the dramatic equivalent of the issues, it focuses on the sound-bite approach. It may be scary, folks, but in creative terms it's Lawrence Welk music.

For a commendable length of time, "Jennifer Eight," starring Uma Thurman and Andy Garcia, is one of the better zeppelins. Like most of the others, it promises an enthralling voyage of discovery and surprise. But like all of the others, it eventually blows everything for a cartoonish psycho-killer conclusion. Ah find it fascinatin' that so many of these movies can start out so good and end up so full of gas.

Burned-out L. A. cop Garcia has left the usual bad marriage to work in Eureka, a small Northern California town. Joining brother-in-law and former partner Lance Henriksen, he finds himself immediately on the case when body parts are found at a garbage dump. With forensic know-how and insightful figuring, Garcia realizes it's time to reopen a discontinued file -- code-named "Jennifer" -- to trace a serial murderer who appears to have made his eighth killing. When he meets Thurman, the blind friend of the last victim, he finds a lead and, of course, love.

The growing affair between dark-eyed, intense Garcia and blue-eyed, ethereal Thurman is the movie's obvious mainstay. It's basically the vicarious joy of attractive people pouncing on each other.

Beyond that, Garcia (before he turns into a raving, one-dimensional obsessive) exudes leading presence; and pale, sightless Thurman imbues her role with touching fragility. Her abilities become demonstrably clear at a Christmas party packed with noisy revelers. As she waits for Garcia to return to her, her mounting panic is palpable as she stands like a reed in the wind of joyous bedlam, her hands clutching each other desperately.

In fact, writer/director Bruce Robinson (who made the amusing, nihilistic comedies "Withnail & I" and "How to Get Ahead in Advertising") uses hands as an adroit motif. After studying a victim's scuffed fingertips, then staring at the red hand of a Don't Walk signal, Garcia has an astounding epiphany. The blind, we find out from Thurman, shake with two hands. On more than one occasion, a flustered Garcia uses his hands to throttle officials impeding his progress.

Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall's contribution to the movie is significant, from that darkly delineated dump site to the subtlety of skin tones. Any thriller with a blind person will feature a "Wait Until Dark"-style, claustrophobic confrontation between victim and killer. With flashlights in tar-dark corridors and a howling, wintry night outside, Hall creates 90 percent of the suspense. Robinson, of course, is behind those scenes too. He also writes in a wonderful interrogation session between world-weary FBI interrogator John Malkovich and Garcia, almost worth the price of admission.

Robinson does fail one genre rule. He brings the movie in at way over two hours. They should have called this "Jennifer 128." But he makes sure to duplicate the genre's in-built flaw: Like most thrillers, from "Fatal Attraction" to "Basic Instinct," the ending can't possibly live up to the expectations it creates.

Nowadays we're conditioned to expect -- at the very least -- a fake ending, a plot twist and a jagged knife gleaming in the light. Yet, when it happens, there's a feeling of utter dissatisfaction, of being had. When all is said and done, somehow it ain't the same movie you started with. That's the scary part.

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