A Perfect Murder (1998)

reviewed by
Jon Ridge

* * *
w/  Michael Douglas,  Gwyneth Paltrow,  Viggo Mortensen,
     (that chick from MISSISSIPPI MASALA)

As antiquated as the formula is, I'm surprised Hollywood keeps it around: wife cheats on abusive spouse and, instead of leaving him, convinces her lover to kill him so they can be together and get all his money. Or, roles can be switched and jealous husband can be the one doing the plotting. As is the case with MURDER, nicely conceived and gamely acted.

Douglas plays a businessman, Steven Taylor. His business is about to go bankrupt. His wife, Emily (Paltrow), is having an affair with a painter across town, named David (the expressionless Mortensen). They plan to let Steven in on it - she more than he: "It's not fair to him". But, Steven is no dupe. Though, how he knows, or even suspects, enough to have the two photographed during an afternoon rendezvous, is never explained.

Standard stuff. But, the movie has smart, thinking individuals. Like Douglas, who has his plan to do away with his wife down to how and why to do what with keys. And, Mortensen - a scamster - who agrees to do the "wet work", but has plans, also. Every detail of the murder plot, and the complications that inevitably arise, seems to be coherent and logical, and it's kind of fun watching the genre played out intelligently for once.

I liked someof the physical acting between Paltrow and Mortensen, as during an art exhibition where he sees her, starts walking toward her and she inconspicuously waves him off. Then, once they've met in the corner, and Douglas comes upon them, they act completely natural and never give any sort of nervous reaction that maybe he knows.

And I liked the way Douglas seemed to have everything figured out, and together. He's able to verbally explain his motives with well- chosen words. I like dialogue where people come at the subject of discussion from not just one angle, but think a situation through, think about every possibility. MURDER has that kind of banter.

I just wish the film had been about more. I kept waiting for it to ask questions movies like this never ask. For instance, why does the Paltrow character keep saying it's not fair to her husband to keep her affair a secret? As if she's concerned about how he feels. I'm wondering why she would've had the affair in the first place, and not worry about how it may or may not affect him, and why it would only hit her a good ways into the affair to at least let him know about it. Does she love her husband? People don't usually get married otherwise, right? And if she does love him, how much or how little that she can't try and work things out? Or, _has_ she tried? Does she care about whether or not she has hurt him, or that she'll hurt him again? Steven doesn't seem like such a bad guy (of course, he _is_, but that's only later on). He's rich. He likes being rich, gives him a certain air of superiority (at one point he tells Paltrow which dress to wear - so, you know he's a real creep). Maybe he makes her feel small, and insecure, but has it always been that way? How did it _get_ that way? Also, there's no tangible chemistry between Paltrow and Mortensen, furthering my question into why-is-she-with-either- man territory.

The same goes for Douglas' character. He has multiple reasons for wanting his wife dead, not just the obvious (which, come to think, isn't really a reason at all, considering what he's most worried with). But, why is he married to her?

It's an inconsequential line of inquiry in the end, I guess, but wouldn't answering such questions - or even addressing them - give the film a little more dramatic depth? Of course, that would make a longer movie. But hey, attention spans do exist.

And why, oh why, do they have to revert to a violent ending? I saw a movie once called, I believe, LADY BEWARE. It starred Diane Lane. The storyline wasn't quite the same, but it, too, could have ended in a violent way. Instead, it chose a more subtle approach that was much, much more effective. A PERFECT MURDER deserved one of those, because it has a lot going for it already. -R-

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