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‘The Pelican Brief’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 17, 1993

Visiting aliens wishing to experience America's movie culture at its cutting-edge worst should land by the nearest Omniplex-7 and catch a Saturday night showing of "The Pelican Brief." They should keep their space vessels hovering and ready to go.

This Warner Bros. adaptation of John Grisham's pulpy bestseller, starring Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington, has it all -- which is to say, nothing. A brightly wrapped, ketchup-drenched mush-burger, it slides down the Zeitgeist esophagus like a slippery McPelican. You pay, you swallow, you drive home. You're left with nothing except, possibly, heartburn.

When two Supreme Court justices are assassinated, law student Roberts writes a speculative brief that implicates a Louisiana oilman and the White House. When Roberts's boyfriend, law professor Sam Shepard, shares the manuscript with FBI lawyer-pal John Heard, the death toll begins. Suddenly, friends and associates around Roberts start getting murdered.

Terrified, Roberts goes undercover, ducking from the FBI, the CIA, the White House, a professional killer called Khamel (Stanley Tucci) and various other paranoid-movie archetypes. With nowhere to turn, she calls on Washington, an investigative reporter for a leading District of Columbia newspaper called the, uh, Washington Herald.

There's little to say about the plot, except to note its strategically placed murders and close shaves. The killings are mostly the brain-exploding, gun-execution variety (say goodnight, Justice Hume Cronyn). One victim gets his neck broken by Khamel's rope while sitting in a porno theater. And in the movie's dumbest death of all (a worthy achievement right there), a hired killer gets a terminal blast from his own booby trap. Meanwhile, Roberts goes through enough hair and costume disguises to justify a line of Julia Dolls. She and Washington chase down leads. They switch hotels. They escape whizzing bullets and bomb-rigged cars. With the possibility of romance kept at segregated bay by the movie and the book, there's little else to do.

Director Alan J. Pakula, whose resume includes "The Parallax View," "Klute," "All the President's Men" and "Presumed Innocent," replays his own suspense cliches. In his scheme, Roberts functions primarily as a vulnerable bird (with glamorous plummage), stalked by would-be killers in crowded Mardi Gras streets, deserted corridors and -- in Deep Throat tradition -- underground parking lots. Doesn't Pakula fall asleep doing this stuff?

As for supporting performers, they are never troubled with originality. Robert Culp, as a marbles-deficient president; Tony Goldwyn, as his cheekbone-flexing chief of staff (those guys are always evil); and John Lithgow, as Denzel Washington's endearingly cantankerous editor, merely fulfill their one-dimensional missions.

The only one missing is Fred Thompson -- a real-life Washington attorney usually cast as a Washington Type whenever Hollywood comes to the District. Maybe he was out of town. It's just as well for him: "Pelican Brief," even by its own fast-food standards, is out to lunch.

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