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LAKE PLACID

by: Scott Renshaw

You have to know what you can expect from writer David E. Kelley -- and what you can't expect -- to have a chance of enjoying the determinedly quirky LAKE PLACID. Determined quirkiness has been the defining characteristic of Kelley's better-known television work, from "L.A. Law" through "Picket Fences" and "Ally McBeal." He delights in creating eccentric characters, giving them outrageous things to say, and hoping that our amusement and affection for those characters will carry us through stories where his main goal is Making a Social Statement. This isn't a master of plotting we're talking about here. If you can swing with Kelley's off-beat sense of humor, you're in good shape; if not, you're in for a long night of eye-rolling and teeth-grinding.

For LAKE PLACID, his first thriller, Kelley abandons the social commentary entirely to give his goofy characters plenty of room to work, in a genre where plotting isn't particularly vital. The result is an occasionally hilarious insult comedy only occasionally interrupted by a monster movie. The setting is Black Lake, Maine, where the recent separation of a Fish and Game investigator from the lower half of his body has local sheriff Hank Keough (Brendan Gleeson) looking for answers. Help arrives from Fish and Game investigator Jack Wells (Bill Pullman), as well as New York paleontologist Kelly Scott (Bridget Fonda). When crackpot millionaire mythology professor Hector Cyr (Oliver Platt) joins the search team, tensions mount, then escalate when it becomes clear that the killer they're looking for is a 30-foot crocodile.

The combination of tightly-wound urbanites and laconic locals provides most of the comic fodder in LAKE PLACID. Hector heckles Keough's weight and backwoods roots; Keough mocks Kelly's aversion to the outdoors. Even Betty White gets in on the act as a foul-mouthed lake-dweller, firing decidedly non-"Golden Girl" salvos of epithets. When it works, it works wonderfully, particularly when Platt and Gleeson square off. Platt always shines when given the role of the big-mouth, making him an ideal actor for Kelley's tart zingers. Gleeson, meanwhile, lends Keough a restraint and dignity you wouldn't expect from a character who's a skeet for put-downs. Movie-goers who can enjoy a film simply by revelling in quotable lines, including a sly shot at Woody Allen's infamous "the heart wants what the heart wants" comment, are in for a real treat.

Those expecting something akin to an actual thriller, on the other hand, are in for a disappointment. The first hour of LAKE PLACID includes a couple of graphic dismemberments and a few animal carcases, but not much else in the way of scares. In fact, the entire premise generally seems like an excuse to put these four characters in the same place and let them snipe at each other. Two of those characters, Pullman's and Fonda's, don't even contribute much to the kookiness quotient (Fonda in particular plays Kelly with too much Ally McBeal stridency). And as clever as Kelley's writing can be, it's distracting when he calls attention to his own cleverness (a notion to which any number of "Ally McBeal" detractors can attest), or grows infatuated with the lack of restrictions on an R-rated film's dialogue. LAKE PLACID is basically a one-type-of-joke film. How quickly one tires of that one type of joke will go a long way towards determining one's enjoyment.

Fortunately, Kelley and director Steve Miner don't give that joke much chance to grow tired, wrapping up the proceedings in a tidy 80 minutes. That includes a corker of a conclusion, with more tension and narrow escapes in five minutes than in the rest of the film combined. The climax is almost enough to fool you into thinking LAKE PLACID was actually a thriller, instead of a farcical comedy with expensive mechanical reptiles. Kelley has already proven himself a writer for very specific taste

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