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Sneaking Up on the Joneses

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 1999

  Movie Critic

'Arlington Road'
Jeff Bridges and Hope Davis might have troublesome neighbors in "Arlington Road." (Lakeshore Entertainment)

Mark Pellington
Jeff Bridges;
Tim Robbins;
Joan Cusack;
Hope Davis;
Robert Gossett;
Spencer Treat Clark
Running Time:
2 hours
Violence and profanity
"Arlington Road" gives suburbanites something to worry about other than the daily commute, magnet schools and crab grass. Set in an antiseptic corner of Reston, this paranoid thriller suggests that those innocuous folks next door, the ones with the new satellite dish, are really right-wing conspirators.

Though a thematically ambitious and deftly acted thriller, the film is also shockingly coldblooded and not a little reactionary. There's more than a hint of McCarthyism in the ham-fisted subtitle, "Fear Thy Neighbor."

Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges), a squirrelly history professor whose FBI agent wife was killed by political extremists, would never have met his new neighbors, the Langs, had he not saved their 9-year-old son's life after a fireworks mishap. But afterward Faraday, his girlfriend (Hope Davis) and his 10-year-old son become regulars at the Langs' backyard barbecues.

Oliver and Cheryl Lang (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack) couldn't be more supportive of the still-mournful widower and his little boy. But Faraday senses that something is most definitely amiss with this unfailingly pleasant pod-people pair.

Of course, he's a naturally suspicious fellow, and not just because of his wife's fate. He teaches a class in American terrorism at GWU, the purpose of which seems to be scaring the bejesus out of the students. "The people in that building felt secure and safe, the way you feel now," he says, showing them a picture of the Oklahoma bombing aftermath. "And in an instant they were gone forever."

Still, maybe there's something to his fears this time. After catching Oliver in a lie, Faraday digs into his background and becomes increasingly convinced that his new best friends are extremist provocateurs. Nobody believes him, of course, except members of the audience, who are either students of Hitchcock or have seen the tell-all trailer. Of course, these contented conservatives are mad bombers!

Bridges, brow furrowed, sweat pouring, does most of the heavy lifting, but Cusack and Robbins make villainy look easy. In their capable hands, the Langs seem blissfully unaware that they so perfectly illustrate the banality of evil. Sadly, we never spend much time inside their sociopathic little heads, and in many instances the characters are but mouthpieces for the filmmakers' message: It's good citizenship to foster a healthy suspicion.

Director Mark Pellington ("Going All the Way") uses extreme camera angles, fuzzy focus and other gimmicks to goose up Ehren Kruger's screenplay, a talky affair that grows increasingly suspenseless as the coincidences mount.

With the rise of domestic terrorism, boogeymen no longer lurk among cobwebbed Gothic ruins, they live in a gated community with you. "Do you feel safe?" is this paranoid thriller's mantra. And the answer: You better hadn't oughta.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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