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by: Scott Renshaw

A wronged man.  A femme fatale.  A body.  A deception.  Avarice and alcohol.  Sweat, sex, cigarettes and shadows.  These are the little things of which the contemporary film noir mystery is made, so predictably that the genre has descended into the kind of ridiculous self-parody of which direct-to-video Mickey Rourke vehicles are made.  With too many film-makers content to keep re-making DOUBLE INDEMNITY and BODY HEAT, there doesn't seem to be anywhere to go but subversion.

For a while, that looks like where PALMETTO is headed.  The obligatory sucker is a former reporter named Harry Barber (Woody Harrelson) who has learned the hard way that honesty is not necessarily the best policy.  After threatening to expose corrupt government officials and refusing to accept hush money, Harry found himself framed, convicted and sitting in jail for two years.  Now released and understandably bitter, Harry becomes the perfect target for Rhea Malroux (Elisabeth Shue), the trophy wife of an ailing millionaire.  Rhea invites Harry to participate in a scam to fake the kidnapping of Malroux's teenage daughter Odette (Chloe Sevigny) and share in a $500,000 ransom.  Harry finds the offer too tempting to pass up, but the deal begins to sour when bodies start turning up at inconvenient times, with a trail that keeps pointing directly at Harry.

Standard noir stuff, to be sure, tag-teaming with a sultry South Florida setting to create some major deja vu.  Then screenwriter E. Max Frye (working from James Hadley Chase's novel "Just Another Sucker") pulls out some of the expectation-twisting tricks he showed off in his script for Jonathan Demme's SOMETHING WILD.  The oddball touches start popping up with regularity:  Harry lighting a cigarette which flares up in his face; Harry running face first into a post; Harry fumbing with a tape recorder as he tries to catch his accomplices scheming; Harry "seducing" Rhea with all the romantic subtlety of a stud horse.  Suddenly PALMETTO seems to be coming from a slightly different place, one where the protagonist isn't just an ordinary guy led into a bad situation by his zipper.  Harry appears to be hopelessly inept, portrayed by Harrelson with his impressive gift for convincing ineptitude.

Sadly, PALMETTO soon veers from goofiness to predictable over-complexity to twisty-turny absurdity.  The plot twists become ever more elaborate and ever more unnecessary, burying a few sturdy sequences like Harry's efforts to keep a cop from spotting a body in his car's trunk.  Since there's never any real attempt to establish the relationships, it's hard to care much about how Harry will explain his actions to his artist girlfriend Nina (Gina Gershon), or what exactly Harry might learn from his ordeal.  Finally, the whole film goes completely mental in a finale which finds Harrelson suspended over a vat of acid, Gershon tied to a chair and Shue vamping around in a black pixie-cut wig.  I half expected the story to be concluded next week, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.

I suppose at the very least PALMETTO succeeds at avoiding the film noir rut where only the names change from one film to the next.  It's just bizarre enough that it might have been entertaining, if only it made an ounce of sense.  Credit Harrelson and Frye with providing a brief, faint hope that noir might have a few more miles left in it, provided somebody remembers to bring along a steering wheel.

On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 sweaty palms:  5.


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