THE PROBLEM WITH "Arlington Road," a mystery/thriller about weird neighbors, is that there are no bumps, curves or interesting scenery along the way. Apart from a punch line that will surprise most people -- mostly because of its unpredictable silliness -- this is a flat, formulaic ride. You can see where you're headed from the get-go.
Jeff Bridges plays Michael Faraday, a rumpled professor at George Washington University with a wild-eyed intensity (possibly something to do with the pay scale), who teaches a course on global terrorism. He's outraged at the way the federal government has reacted to famous faceoffs (a la Ruby Ridge) from the recent past, including a series of misunderstandings that left his wife -- a Fed herself -- pointlessly slain.
Screenwriter Ehren Kruger is clearly trying to create a series of moral grays in the black-and-white dichotomy of federalism versus paramilitarism. Michael may be the central character with a conscience, but he's also deeply disgruntled about government. And the slightest conversation about his dearly departed wife can send him into a tearful fit. Michael, it seems, is as capable of turning as postal as the next guy.
In an opening scene that seems unnecessarily grisly, Michael, driving home, sees a boy (Mason Gamble) staggering down the street, bleeding, with one of his arms sickeningly charred. He takes care of the boy (who, we learn, ran afoul of a fireworks prank), rushing him to the emergency room.
Michael's assistance earns the undying gratitude of the boy's parents -- and Michael's new neighbors -- Oliver and Cheryl Lang (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack). A friendship arises between the two houses, buoyed by the parity in age between Brady, the wounded boy, and Michael's son Grant (Spencer Treat Clark).
But Oliver and Cheryl seem strange. Oliver, who has a weird paramilitary glint in his eye, says he designs malls, but the blueprints lying around in his house seem to be for office buildings. He gets edgy, too, when Michael presses him on the issue.
Despite the understandable protestations of his girlfriend (Hope Davis) that he's turning into an unreasonable, paranoid snoop, Michael becomes increasingly obsessed with the Langs. And he becomes convinced these guys are up to something even worse than designing shopping malls.
Although Kruger and director Mark Pellington make a perfunctory case for the Langs' innocence, there really isn't much doubt about the accuracy of Michael's suspicions. The Hollywood mystery/thriller has become such a threadbare, corrupt genre, it would take a frontal lobotomy to be shocked or surprised by anything.
For instance, when Michael's girlfriend learns a few damaging things about the Langs and rushes to a mall payphone to warn Michael, you just know that when she hangs up and turns around, she'll bump into -- well, you don't need much help with this.
Although the film starts out with well-mounted menace, "Arlington Road" becomes increasingly overwrought and predictable. The middle and final sections of the movie have been written with less precision, perhaps because the filmmakers assumed the audience would be speeding along too quickly to require credibility. Wrong. This is when credibility really matters. As for the acting, Bridges makes a convincingly desperate man. And between them, Robbins and Cusack manage to produce performances that screech to a halt just before plunging into unintentional satire. But there is the feeling that the performers have been given the narrative equivalent of a lousy pass on the 10-yard line that they're forced to carry all the way through to the endzone. It should come as little surprise that they barely break the line of scrimmage.
ARLINGTON ROAD (R, 118 minutes) -- Contains strong language, a grotesque scene of flesh charring and a little punch-up violence. Area theaters.
CAPTION: Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack portray an average couple -- or do they?