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What Lies Beneath

DreamWorks Home Entertainment

Starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer

Written by Clark Gregg and Sarah Kernochan
Directed by Robert Zemeckis

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

When an only child heads off for college, it gives the old folks an opportunity to spend more quality time together and learn a little bit more about each other. This period is often referred to as "The Golden Years."

Surely enough for Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Norman (Harrison Ford), as soon as their maturing rugrat is duly installed in her dorm room, the parental units rediscover their domestically repressed libidos — even indulging in a taste of kink as they eavesdrop on the connubial exclamations of their new neighbors.

Nevertheless, Claire can't escape the pangs of empty-nest syndrome. Norman, true to form, throws himself into his work, but Claire, having long ago given up her career as a classical musician, is lost. When she's not rummaging wistfully, yet ominously, through family memorabilia, she whiles away her time spying on the passionate-yet-suspicious Jolie-Bob Thornton-like couple next door.

Full of misleading plots and turns, What Lies Beneath would at this point seem to be heading in the direction of Hitchcock's Rear Window. But anyone who's seen a trailer or TV spot for this Robert Zemeckis film knows that's not what it's about at all, as the film's major twist was callously trumpeted in a big-money marketing campaign, revealing that the film owes more, perhaps, to Hitchcock's Rebecca, or possibly the life of Teddy Kennedy.

Whether or not the effect of this undermining miscalculation ruins the film is tough to say. It's conceivable that without that unwanted foreknowledge an audience could be effectively misdirected by Zemeckis' narrative sleight-of-hand, seduced by the charismatic performances by Pfeiffer and Ford and the simple promise of one suspense film, even when they're cunningly being delivered another.

However, knowing what lies beneath while only being shown the surface tests the patience. When Pfeiffer suspects foul play next door — and, worse, that she's being haunted by a murdered neighbor — we know its only a red herring, thus eliminating suspense. Still, Zemeckis' craft is steady, and despite a preponderance of clichés, the superior knowledge allows the viewer to appreciate his skill without the bothersome narrative involvement too many movies aim for these days.

Beneath Zemeckis' skill, however, also lies a predilection for sheer silliness, never more present than during the climactic (and tiresome) final 40 minutes — shortly before the commencement of which, 90 minutes into the film, I casually glanced at the "time remaining" and wearily exclaimed, "Forty minutes!" — which is full of stock schlock gimmicks and one particularly unusual (and most likely needlessly expensive) stunt shot of which the instinctive reaction from the audience is: "That was weird. Why did he do that?"

Perhaps viewers not previously exposed to the film's "secrets" will find themselves nail-bitingly propelled into the third act by the impetus of revelation, but the rest of us will simply rue the sorry state of the modern, explicit film trailer. Still, we'll take solace in the fact that the movie wasn't really that good anyway.

Also with Diana Scarwid as Claire's brassy, arty, eccentric friend (note to aspiring screenwriters: this is the kind of character you insert when you realize your principals are boring) and Katharine Towne as... Oops, I almost gave it away.

Another solid DreamWorks presentation, in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and DTS, with audio in Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround. Includes commentary by director Zemeckis and an HBO "First Look" featurette.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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