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‘Music Box’ (PG-13) and ‘Everybody Wins’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 26, 1990

The courtroom thriller continues to be alive and well and parading around in the most emotional of briefs, whether on TV ("People's Court"), in real life (Contra, Fawn and Ollie) or in Hollywood, which has just sent two more murder mysteries, "Music Box" and "Everybody Wins," our way.

These two mysteries take the same formula -- a miscarriage of justice, a charge of crowd-hissing brutality, blind love between attorney (or detective) and client, and an earthshaking discovery after the judge's decision -- down different paths. "Music" goes for trite-and-true success. "Everybody" chooses an interesting way to die.

In "Music," attorney Jessica Lange must defend her Hungarian father (Armin Mueller-Stahl) from charges that, as a member of Hungary's ruthless Special Section, he executed Jewish women and children on the banks of the Danube.

But in the hack hands of screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, that explosive, potentially human situation is a mere photocopying of his previous script for "Jagged Edge." Lawyer Glenn Close's love for accused publisher Jeff Bridges in "Jagged" becomes Lange's familial duty to Dad; a hunting knife in the first film turns into a bayonet blade; sleazy D.A. Peter Coyote is exchanged for sleazy D.A. Frederic Forrest; and a very significant typewriter becomes a very significant -- well, look at the title.

Cinematographer Patrick Blossier's reddish, autumnal tones, though pleasing, seem inappropriate, except on one occasion when (through Lange's subjective eyes) the River Danube appears to turn blood red. Lange imbues her role with the usual Jessica warmth but her doe-eyed acceptance of Dad (who has been accused of some pretty bad things) seems more dumb than devoted. Eszterhas, in his formulaic hurry to get to the end, invests little time delineating the opposing impulses that would make Lange credibly turn a blind eye to close-to-home evidence. A rewarding Hollywood career lies before him.

Conversely, in "Everybody Wins," playwright Arthur Miller (whose last script for Hollywood was "The Misfits" in 1961) takes his sweet time getting into characters -- at the cost of plot. He and director Karel Reisz (who made "Who'll Stop the Rain" and "The French Lieutenant's Woman") experiment wildly in film noir and parareality. In this placid-Connecticut crime mystery, strategic witness Debra Winger is bonkers or lying, or both, small-town investigator Nick Nolte falls in love with her anyway and the audience -- at least, the one I saw this with -- just shakes its collective head. When the movie ended (with no apparent solution), there was a collective pause before a splutter of nervous laughter and bewildered mutterings.

Yet, even at its misbegotten worst (and it's more misbegotten than successful), "Everybody" has far more originality of purpose than "Music." Miller seems interested primarily in human corruptions, major and minor, and he doesn't mind where he has to go to find it.

Nolte doesn't seem to mind either. When Winger, a complete stranger to Nolte, summons him to solve a case of mistaken identity (in which a young, apparently innocent man faces a lifetime sentence for the brutal slaying of his uncle), he gets pulled in by her strange, seductive behavior; they're holding hands and kissing before she's even told him the full story. He should have waited.

The story involves wild-eyed cult leader Will Patton (he was Gene Hackman's demented assistant in "No Way Out"), who presides over a bikers'-workshop-cum-cathedral built to the glory of a dead Confederate colonel, and the local prosecutor in a conspiracy that, in Winger's unreliable words, goes all the way "to the top of the mountain."

Or does it? That seems to be the point in Miller's film-noir allegory: Nothing and no one makes sense but everyone adjusts. "Everything is possible and impossible at the same time," Winger explains to Nolte. "This is what I live with all the time."

And the thing about "Everybody" is, she's not kidding.

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