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‘Pacific Heights’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 28, 1990

There's nothing to fire you up in "Pacific Heights," no matter of life and death. Is this "thriller" about Satan's baby gestating in someone's womb? Is it about a convict come back to murder the lawyer who put him away? Is it about a weird motel clerk who pathologically kills women? Is there a little white bunny boiling in the pot?

No. Wanna know what "Pacific" is about? A tenant who won't pay the rent. That's right: Slick, mystery man Michael Keaton moves in to a downstairs San Francisco apartment owned by Melanie Griffith and Matthew Modine, and doesn't give them a dime.

Not even a security deposit.

OK, there's more to it than that. But not much. Keaton doesn't just turn out to be a bad tenant. He turns out to be a very bad tenant, a serial dweller who knows how to sit on the rent, trash the house, then use the law to win the case, if not the house. What a fearful bummer, says this movie, to be prey to your tenants. Don't you hate it when that happens?

We're talking a thriller about property ownership. This is a yuppie conceit; this is not interesting to human beings. What's the moral behind "Pacific," anyway? Always Check Your References?

Director John Schlesinger, who brought some tremendous atmospherics to "The Believers" but had problems making a full-scale movie out of it, has even less success here. His attempts to drywall some menace around scriptwriter Daniel Pyne's incredibly flimsy premise fail abysmally. Pyne, an ex-TV writer who apparently had personal problems with a bad renter, should have saved his experience for after-dinner talk. He throws in some pretty perfunctory, scriptwriting-101 fare: Big 'Frisco roaches crawl through the walls, elevator doors don't close quickly enough, a white cat leads Melanie Griffith into the basement where, of course, there are no lights. Pyne even throws in a miscarriage for Griffith, in a misguided attempt to up the ante.

Had the filmmakers imaginatively rethought this, "Pacific" could have been an entertaining comedy of menace about upwardly-mobile greed (Modine and Griffith clearly can't afford this $750,000 house) and tenant-from-hell shenanigans. Certainly none of the characters matter enough to root for; they're custom-made for laughter. Modine, who goes from cleancut boyfriend to arrested, frothing debtor in screen minutes, loses his cool so easily and maniacally, you wonder if he'll turn out to be the real psycho.

His relationship with Griffith is a pretty negligible affair. With a couple of adjustments, it could have been hysterical. Modine's obviously halfway nuts and Griffith speaks her lines as if she's afraid somebody in the audience won't like her if she's anything but sweet and sultry. Keaton does a decent enough job of being unctuous, with a hint of evil beneath the oily surface. But that's the problem with "Pacific": That evil never breaks through. It stays a hint.

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