April 24, 2008

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88 Minutes (PG-13)
Al Pacino and a mushroom cloud of uncontrollable and unnaturally black hair play a forensic psychiatrist being tormented by a man on death row who Pacino’s testimony put away in 88 Minutes, a shockingly, often hilariously, awful suspense film.

Dr. Jack Gramm (Pacino) is 10 pounds of ego in a half-pound bag. Ten pounds of ego and a motorcycle helmet of puffy black hair. Together, these things form a man who is part fatuous professor, part fatuous psychiatric expert who testifies at criminal trials to explain exactly why the psycho killer who trussed up his victims before torturing them and causing them to bleed to death would probably do it again if not jailed. Jack does such as good job of this that he helps to put Jon Forster (Neal McDonough), the psycho killer in question, on death row. On the day Forster is scheduled to die, Jack starts to receive threatening phone calls. The first one tells him, in the computer-altered voice of kidnappers and high school cheerleader stalkers everywhere, that he has 88 minutes to live (we find out later that that particular time period has a gruesome significance to Jack). Jack suspects that someone is playing with him but then ominous things start to happen — a bomb threat is called in, his car is vandalized, a
creepy note is left on his overhead projector. Dear God, the call is coming from inside the university!

Jack is sure that Forster is behind this — particularly because earlier that morning he learned that there had just that previous night been some killings fitting Forster’s M.O. Clearly, it is a plot to throw doubt on Forster’s guilt and stay his execution. His un-incarcerated accomplice is even laying evidence to set Jack up for a few crimes. Now, Jack must find out who is tormenting him before the 88-minute deadline is up and he is killed, possibly allowing Forster to go free. Is it his adoring teaching assistant (Alicia Witt)? Or his adoring student (Leelee Sobieski)? Or his adoring business assistant (Amy Brenneman)? Or his adoring one-night stand (Leah Cairns)? Or the dean, who seems to hate him but probably adores him also? Or, and SPOILER ALERT, I guess, could it be seemingly not-adoring student Mike (Benjamin McKenzie), who might as well have the words “red herring” stenciled onto his forehead?

How many people have to think Al Pacino’s character is just awesome? Is it like a green M&Ms in the dressing room thing? Does he have an “at least two girls half my age must appear to totally want me” clause in his contract? Did the same thinking that created the “everybody loves Al” requirement have a hand in the completely insane hair he sports here? Pacino turns 68 this month. Work with the gray. Embrace the gray. Jamie Lee Curtis did and it got her the cover of a magazine and a spot on Oprah. Perhaps his screaming black mane is supposed to give us insight into his character. Instead, like that stain in the detergent commercial, it yells at us throughout the movie.

Al Pacino has made quite a career, of late, out of doing Al Pacino impersonations. He needs to stop. I liked him in his 1970s films. I want to keep liking him in them. I’d even be willing to like him here if he just turned the volume down a bit — on his scenery-devouring Acting! and his hair.

With weird hair shots and improbable adoration throwing moments of hilarity into what should have been a tension-filled story, 88 Minutes never really had a shot, but then the story gets even more predictable, the dialogue gets campier and at a certain part you can’t blame the failure of this film on a bottle of Grecian Formula anymore. TV gives us similar stories each week with less hysteria and more credibility. For a movie like this to deliver, it needs to do more than just dumb down the plot and turn up the volume. D

Rated R for disturbing violent content, brief nudity and language. Directed by Jon Avnet and written by Gary Scott Thompson, 88 minutes is a disappointing 20 minutes longer than expected and is distributed in wide release by Sony.