Filmmaker Barbet Schroeder needles the rich with chilly glee in "Reversal of Fortune," a wickedly prickly satire about the fun couple of the '80s, Claus and Sunny von Bulow. Based on a book by Alan Dershowitz, the lawyer who appealed the conviction of the hypodermic-happy (or was he?) Claus, this engrossing mystery-comedy peeks through the keyholes of the rich and infamous in a manner both droll and delicious.
We realize that this is not just a skimpy reenactment of tabloid truths when the narrator turns out to be Sunny, the comatose yet irreverent heiress. "Brain dead. Body better than ever," she says as nurses tend to her lovely shell. With the wisdom we expect of the departed, Sunny asks us to weigh the evidence, both subjective and factual, against her husband. "Is he the Devil?" she asks. "Can the Devil get justice?"
As Sunny, Glenn Close has got herself into another dangerous liaison, a tangy, deftly executed screen duet with Jeremy Irons, slug-colored and keen-witted as the enigmatic Dane Claus. Ron Silver also stars as Dershowitz, the Harvard Law School professor who is persuaded to go to bat for Claus, who has been convicted of shooting Sunny full of insulin. Through the two relationships, Schroeder and screenwriter Nicholas Kazan both send up and savor the marble pleasures of life within the von Bulows' Newport mansion.
Seen as through a monocle, the couple lead a pinched and spiritually arid existence here. They and their three children dine well, love politely and consider one another from an ever-growing distance. Their gatherings are like snapshots from "Citizen Kane's" family album, framed in guilt. Even lying side by side, Claus in blinders and Sunny in earplugs, they shrink from one another, seeming fearful of catching something. Only the grumpy, fat dogs seem real in this splendid ice palace.
By contrast, Dershowitz is a passionate lawyer, a driven detective and a devoted father whose working-class roots make him the ideal foil for his imperious client. "You have one thing in your favor. Everybody hates you," says Dershowitz. "Well, that's a start," replies von Bulow, who remarks that it has been much easier to get a good table in a restaurant after all this unpleasantness.
Von Bulow, pinch-faced and stiff as a nutcracker, is luridly out of place at Dershowitz's disheveled town house, where the lawyer and his students are researching the case. One evening their client joins them for Chinese takeout, picky as a raccoon over his ginger prawns. "What do you call a person with a fear of insulin? A Claus-trophobic," von Bulow says, laughing as if his face might crack and fall in broken shards to the floor.
Irons founds his adroit performance, from cadaverous countenance to crooked pinky, on strangled passion and noblesse oblige. And astonishingly, he manages to make old Claus oddly pathetic, even sympathetic. Of course, it helps that Sunny, as portrayed here, is a miserably unhappy drug abuser who would rather sleep than anything else. We are perhaps all too tempted to say she got what she deserved.
Schroeder and Close are able to show us both the absurd tragedy and waste in the heiress's avid self-destruction, whether she's getting plastered on 12 eggnogs or overdosing on 90 aspirin. But Schroeder and Kazan waste no tears on these basically useless people. The filmmakers are having a marvelous time rich-bashing.
Reversal of Fortune, at area theaters, is rated R and contains adult subject matter.