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THE GIFT

Grade: B-

Screenwriting duo Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson serve up a grisly stew of Southern Gothic hooey in “The Gift,” but thanks to the skill of director Sam Raimi and the efforts of a strong ensemble cast, the dish, ridiculous as it may be, goes down surprisingly well. It’s hardly a great movie, but if you put yourself in the right frame of mind it can be an enjoyable one.

The title refers to the power of clairvoyance possessed by Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett), a widow with three young children struggling to make ends meet in a small Georgia town. She gives card readings to various of the locals, most notably Buddy Cole (Giovanni Ribisi), a deeply troubled garage mechanic with a submerged animosity toward his parents, and Valerie Barksdale (Hilary Swank), an abused woman who nonetheless can’t bring herself to leave her brutish husband Donnie (Keanu Reeves) despite Annie’s admonitions to do so. When Donnie finds out about the advice Valerie’s been getting, he menaces Annie and her sons, but before his threats can be realized, the psychic is drawn into the police investigation of the disappearance of a local rich girl, Jessica King (Katie Holmes), a seductive vixen engaged to elementary school principal Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear). Annie’s visions eventually lead to the apprehension of a suspect and a trial, but the legal process doesn’t end the mystery, and Annie must face a final confrontation before the case is truly solved and a modicum of peace restored to the cracker-barrel hamlet.

It should be obvious that this scenario doesn’t possess the edgy toughness of Thornton and Epperson’s first collaboration, “One False Move” (1991), or the easy charm of their second, “A Family Thing” (1996). “The Gift” is instead a lurid melodrama with supernatural overtones, heavy on an atmosphere steamy with secrets as well as southern humidity and often dependent on the hoariest contrivances of suspense movies (poor Annie must make her way through more semi-illuminated hallways in search of intruders or apparitions than the viewer can possibily count); and toward the close its twisted take on “To Kill a Mockingbird” goes way over the top. But Raimi, an expert at creating an unsettling mood even in the face of narrative implausibility, expertly employs all the devices of the genre to give the picture a genuinely eerie, creepy feel.

He’s aided by a first-rate case which seems to be enjoying the opportunity to play to the gallery. Blanchett, the Australian actress who’s demonstrated her versatility over the past few years in roles ranging from the wealthy obsessive in “Oscar and Lucinda” (1997) to the imperious queen of “Elizabeth” (1998) and the socialite of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999), shows her range once more with a convincing portrait of a woman desperately trying to be strong in the face of mounting terror; she even manages to persuade you that the character might actually possess the gift she claims. (The performance has much the same kind of depth, unusual in this sort of film, that Kevin Bacon’s did in last year’s even spookier–and grossly underrated–“Stir of Echoes.”) Swank can’t do much but look aggrieved in the role of the battered wife in tight-fitting slacks, and as the flirtatious bride-to-be Holmes acts as though she might be on the set of an Aaron Spelling TV series; but Reeves, whom Raimi is clever enough to present in short, carefully staged and edited sequences, conveys a sense of danger that he never came close to suggesting in his recent turn as a villain in “The Watcher,” and Ribisi elicits both sympathy and fear as the explosive Buddy. Kinnear’s affably lightweight personality is put to good use as the well-mannered Wayne, while Michael Jeter and Gary Cole chew up the scenery in the courtroom false-climax which is the picture’s weakest episode (Reeves is at his least impressive here, too).

In the final analysis, “The Gift” is just a high-toned B-movie which never achieves the ghostly elegance of “Stir of Echoes” or the logical inevitability of either that film or the last project on which Raimi and Thornton worked together, the equally convoluted but far richer “A Simple Plan” (1998). But it’s less obvious in its effects than “What Lies Beneath” was, and its very modesty makes it more fun than that overproduced summer frightfest. What Thornton, Epperson and Raimi have concocted is just a farrago of cornball Southern atmosphere, mystical hokum, generic suspense cliches and overripe melodramatic twists, but they’ve put these lowbrow elements together so cannily that if you’re willing to suspend disbelief for a couple of hours, you should find the result a real–if rather guilty–pleasure.

WHAT WOMEN WANT

C-

The Oprahfication of society continues apace: first Al Gore and George W. Bush, and now Mel Gibson. In Nancy Meyers’ slickly-made but sadly bathetic new fantasy comedy-drama, the erstwhile macho man portrays a male chauvinist pig who magically overhears women’s thoughts and, in learning to deal with the gift, gets in touch with his feminine side to become a sensitive, caring soul. The touchy-feely result should certainly appeal to the large audiences, predominantly female, who have made Winfrey’s show a national institution. Others may be neither touched nor amused.

As one-joke premises go, this isn’t a bad one, but it’s been rather clumsily elaborated by scripters Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa and slackly directed by Meyers. “What Women Want” ultimately comes across as an overproduced big-screen variant of the sort of cutesy stuff one might expect in a movie made for the Lifetime Network–which, after all, proudly advertises itself as the channel of choice for those of the female gender.

Gibson plays Nick Marshall, a Chicago ad exec who thinks himself hot stuff, both professionally and sexually. He gets royally ticked off when his nattering boss Alan Alda hires Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt) as the firm’s new creative director rather than promoting him into the spot, and he plots to sabotage the new gal, aided in his quest by a weird electrical accident that gives him the ability to listen in on the inner workings of women’s minds. The gift changes, him, though; before long he’s not only falling for Darcy, but getting increasingly involved in the life of his estranged adolescent daughter Alex (Ashley Johnson) and truly chummy with other females in his office, including one geekish kid who’s actually suicidal. He also finds himself concerned about wronging a coffee-shop clerk (Marisa Tomei) whom he’s long been asking for dates but now is loath to hurt. To use contemporary terminology, he’s a Martian transformed by the ability to see things from a Venusian perspective; suddenly uninterested in television sports shows or commercials featuring scantily-clad models, he gravitates to true-confession interviews about weight problems and Martha Stewart homemaking episodes instead.

There might have been the germ of a sharp, observant satire in all this, but the makers have chosen to treat the tale in lowest-common-denominator sitcom fashion. The picture is very like every current office-based half-hour on the tube, with an ancillary dash of updated “Father Knows Best” family warmth added to the mix along with the “magical” element. (The depictions of the episodes in which electrical energy first endows Nick with his new power and then removes it, moreover, are distinctly off-putting, lacking any lightness of touch and seeming almost creepy in their literalism. A couple of easy shots at supposed gay mannerisms are a trifle distasteful, too.)

Through it all, though, Gibson proves game for almost anything. On screen virtually every minute, he gives a performance that might most charitably be described as strenuous, running at an almost constant high-octane level and willingly allowing himself to be made to look ridiculous. To his credit, the star throws himself into each and every demand the script makes of him, from glib bonhomie and smarmy self-confidence to manic agitation and looks of soulful, teary-eyed remorse; he even endures an extremely embarrassing scene requiring him to model pantyhose, polish his nails and test what it feels like to remove leg hair. (He’s much more successful in an Astaire-like dance sequence involving a hat and a coatstand.) But for the most part he plays at too high a pitch; the rare occasions when he relaxes a little come as a distinct relief (though when the “It’s A Wonderful Life” fantasy elements intrude, even reticence can’t salvage them). As his inevitable romantic interest, Hunt is appealing but resolutely lightweight. Marisa Tomei has a few good moments as the counter attendant who catches Mel’s eye (including one in the sack with him), but most of the remaining supporting players–Alda, Mark Feuerstein as Mel’s best buddy, Lauren Holly as an office assistant, and Delta Burke and Valerie Perrine as secretaries–are pretty much wasted. Ashley Johnson gets a substantial amount of screen time as the hero’s none-too-happy daughter, but it’s a thankless role.

It’s a sure bet that what a lot of women will want this holiday will be to see Gibson’s conversion to the softer side, some of them more than once. Dates and mates sitting beside them would be well advised to nod approvingly and smile, even if grimly, should the ladies laugh and sniffle at predictable points throughout the picture; not all women will be taken in by the malarkey, of course, but if your companion seems to be, you’d best resist the urge to point out the movie’s tearjerking calculation and rather brazen pandering to its target audience. To do otherwise might cast a pall over end-of-year celebrations, something to be avoided for the sake of seasonal harmony. If, on the other hand, you’re a guy who finds himself chuckling and sniffling at the stuff on display here as well, just consider yourself–like George, Al and Mel–well on the way to Oprahfication too, and learn to live with it.