Kevin Spacey’s apparent desire to emulate his acting idol Jack Lemmon by appearing in highly emotional movies with socially-conscious messages attached may be admirable in theory, but when the result are pictures like “Pay It Forward” and “K-PAX,” it seems a terrible betrayal of the extraordinary talent that he exhibited so eloquently in such edgier fare as “The Usual Suspects,” “L.A. Confidential” and “American Beauty” (not to mention his virtuoso turn as Mel Profitt in the old “Wiseguy” TV series). However noble the cause, the outcome is neither convincing nor compelling.

Unfortunately, Spacey’s newest film continues the unhappy string. “The Life of David Gale” isn’t the sentimental piffle that “Pay” or “K-PAX” was, but though made of sterner stuff, it isn’t significantly better. A self-important death penalty diatribe, the picture has, sad to say, the attributes typical of many Alan Parker products–it’s slick, slightly seedy and thoroughly superficial. As written by first-time scripter Charles Randolph, it treats of a serious issue–whether capital punishment is morally justifiable, especially when employed as capriciously as some see it imposed in the United States–but cheapens it by doing so in the form of a conventional whodunit, with some unnecessarily grisly moments and a twist ending that may surprise viewers but also leaves all the major figures on both sides of the debate look rather like nutbags. You come out of a film like this feeling a bit abused and sullied–rather like its characters.

The story is told in the form of extended flashbacks as ace reporter Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) is given the opportunity to do a series of interviews with the title character (Spacey), a convicted murderer on Texas’ death row whose execution is only three days away. Gale, we learn, was, a decade ago, a brilliant philosophy professor at the University of Texas who was deeply involved, along with his intense colleague Constance Harraway (Laura Linney), in the work of a group called DeathWatch, which tried futilely to halt the tide of executions in the Lone Star State. Unfortunately Gale was rather a jerk, far too cocky and arrogant when called upon to debate the Texas governor (Michael Crabtree) on television, and allowing himself, during a virtual orgy at a colleague’s home, to be seduced by a just-expelled graduate student named Berlin (Rhona Mitra). The vengeful Berlin charged him with rape, and though she split before the case could actually be heard, Gale lost his job and his family as a result of the accusation and descended into alcoholism. (In these scenes Spacey suffers in soap-opera style to show us how Gale hit rock bottom.) Constance alone remained loyal to him, but when she died brutally, David was convicted of killing her.

As David relates his tale of woe, Bitsey becomes convinced of his innocence, and together with her handsome young aide Zack (Gabriel Mann), she tries to discover the identity of the real killer–a task hardly helped by the doomed man’s glib lawyer (Leon Rippy) and made dangerous by the fact that the intrepid duo is being stalked by a mystery man wearing a Stetson and driving a pickup truck (the fellow is rendered even more suspicious by the fact that his vehicle radio is constantly blaring out selections from Puccini). Eventually a partial video tape of the crime points Bitsey, like some modern-day Nancy Drew, in the right direction, but even as she gets closer to the truth, it’s doubtful that she can reach her goal in time to save Gale’s life. The denouement–which we won’t spoil here–has plenty of twists and turns, but they’re neither entirely intelligible nor particularly satisfying. Indeed, the conclusion is demeaning to both death penalty proponents and their opposite numbers. The former, to be sure, are presented as reckless and unwilling to admit that their system might err–the point is hammered home all too crudely by the fact that the Texas governor is called Hardin (get it?) (Another character, played by Lee Ritchey, is called, perhaps not without cause, Joe Mullarkey.) But the members of DeathWatch aren’t characterized much more positively–they turn out to be such fanatics that they’re no less willing to use death, though of a special sort, to suit their purposes too.

The script is also hobbled by clumsy factual missteps. A conversation that David and Constance have well before her death–and so in the early nineties–refers, for instance, to the Illinois moratorium on executions. But in fact Governor George Ryan didn’t institute that program until 2000. The aforementioned Hardin is presented as being Texas governor back in the early nineties as well, but he’s still in that office in the contemporary scenes–very unlikely in a state which doesn’t limit gubernatorial terms but sees most incumbents defeated. Texas locations–Austin, Houston, Huntsville–are bandied about as though they were within easy driving distance of one another, which is manifestly untrue. Which brings up a gaping plot hole: it’s revealed early on that Bitsey and Zack’s rental car has an engine problem, but they proceed to tool around in it for days anyway (apparently on some very long jaunts) until it can conveniently break down at a climactic moment. That’s what’s known as shoddy writing.

A good deal of talent has been expended in telling this tale—though, to be sure, it’s not always employed to best effect. Spacey is fine as the smug academic in the earliest flashbacks and the intent interlocutor in the jailhouse sequences, but he’s much less effective when pretending to be a doting daddy, and he comes on too strong when playing the defeated drunk (Lemmon did this sort of thing much more deftly in “Days of Wine and Roses”). Winslet never really persuades as the reporter (perhaps giving the character the name “Bitsey” doomed credibility from the start), but Mann does the little that’s expected of him decently enough as her boyishly eager assistant. Of the principals Linney comes off best as the driven, self-sacrificing Constance, although a more imaginative director could have found a way to stage her death sequence more discreetly without mitigating its power. More generally Parker infuses a good deal of energy into the proceedings, and working with cinematographer Michael Seresin he captures some appropriately gloomy, threatening widescreen compositions, but overall his work seems too flashy and facile for this subject (just as it was back in 1988 with “Mississippi Burning” and more recently in “Angela’s Ashes”). Gerry Hambling’s editing succeeds in keeping the fractured narrative relatively clear, but the decision to use elaborate montages, complete with scribbled words and deliberately extreme camera angles, as a linking device is a bad mistake. The background score by Alex and Jake Parker is grossly unsubtle, too.

Among recent death-row movies “The Life of David Gale” falls closer to Clint Eastwood’s 1997 misfire “True Crime” (which had much the same structure) than to the real class of the genre, Tim Robbins’ shatteringly straightforward, balanced and honest “Dead Man Walking” (1995). On the scales of cinematic justice, the picture’s good intentions are outweighed by its heavy-handed preachiness and its lurid approach.