FREQUENCY

Drector Gregory Hoblit seems to specialize in pulp trash
movies. Fortunately for him (and us), his first effort,
“Primal Fear,” was trash raised to a transcendent level by the
amazing debut performance of Edward Norton as the murder
suspect defended by Richard Gere. Hoblit’s sophomore feature,
“Fallen,” unhappily, was just “Omen”-derived trash unredeemed
by any special quality. Now he offers his third picture,
essentially a time-travel tale redolent of old “Twilight Zone”
episodes, and it proves to be more akin to “Fallen” than
to “Fear.”

“Frequency” is what you’d get by taking “Back to the Future”
and making it slow and schmaltzy. The foundation is an idea
Rod Serling might have wisely shelved: a down-on-his-luck
cop (Jim Caviezel) finds the ham radio once operated by his
late dad (Dennis Quaid), a fireman who was killed years before
in the line of duty, and gets it running again. By some
miracle, which we’re apparently meant to associate with the
occurrence of the aurora borealis at an unusually high level,
he makes contact with his father–and darned if pop doesn’t
happen to be broadcasting on the night immediately before his
scheduled death some thirty years earlier! After some jabber
and incredulity, our contemporary flatfoot manages to save
his father’s life, but–in one of the staples of the genre–
doing so “changes history,” and involves the decades-separated
duo in a rushed attempt to end the career of a serial murderer
from 1969 called “The Nightingale Killer.” And wouldn’t you
know that the wife-and-mother of our intrepid heroes just
happens to be in the medical services industry?

I won’t go into the complications which result from all this;
suffice it to say that a series of efforts are needed to
end the family drama so as to exclude any unhappy demises and
also to bring about a proper resolution to the serial-killer
subplot. The problem is that in order to work, this kind of
convoluted time-changing tale requires a script so tightly
constructed that it lends the story a sort of logical
inevitability (“Back to the Future” had it, which is what
made Robert Zemeckis’ flick such a satisfying hoot). As it
lurches from episode to episode, however, “Frequency” (written
by a fellow who just happens to be the president of the
production company’s music division–surely a coincidence as
great as any in the film) grows increasingly messy and
arbitrary. You’re left wondering why, if a change in history
alters one fact, it doesn’t alter a lot of others, too; and by
the frenzied denouement, when both father and son are
imperilled, the whole thing has ceased to make a great deal
of sense.

The cast doesn’t help matters much. Quaid is enthusiastic, but
his Queens accent is way overdone, while Caviezel plays the
whole film in a funk which makes him an awful bore. (It’s
not a benefit to the duo that they’re forced to do lots of
scenes hunched over their ham radio, yakking endlessly to
explain the contortions of the plot.) Andre Braugher, who
was so fine in TV’s “Homicide” (and fun in “Primal Fear,” too),
is compelled to wear much unconvincing makeup to play the
paunchy, middle-aged version of Quaid’s close buddy thirty
years later, when he’s the son’s partner. And Shawn Doyle,
as the serial killer, doesn’t begin to match Norton’s creepy
turn in “Fear.” (The horrible wig he wears in the 1969
sequences is an embarrassment, too.)

A few weeks ago we enjoyed John Cusack’s comedy “High
Fidelity.” Perhaps as a complement to that, we should think
of this shaggy-dog tale as “Low Frequency.” But whatever you
call it, it’s a seriously dumb and, to make matters worse,
unconscionably mawkish movie.