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
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