“Time Code” is far from being the worst film of the year, but
some viewers will certainly find the cinematic experiment,
which involves dividing the screen into four quadrants and
simultaneously showing four different but contemporaneous
scenes from a single story, the most irritating. In the
screening on which this review is based, a goodly portion of
the audience departed the auditorium within the first thirty
minutes, some grumbling loudly about not being able to hear
pertinent dialogue or follow the plot.

Those of us who remained, however, saw a picture which, though
decidedly imperfect, improved as it went along, and by the
close delivered some solid laughs. And the technique became
less and less intrusive as it progressed. The result is not
simply a cinematic stunt (though it is that, of course), but
an interesting stab at offering different perspectives on a
single event in an appropriately cinematic way. And it
renews one’s respect for Mike Figgis, who continues to take
risks in what too often becomes a purely profit-oriented
business. To be sure, the risks don’t always pay off–his
last two films, “The Loss of Sexual Innocence” and “Miss
Julie” were failures, the former because it was insufferably
pretentious and banal despite its visual and structural
edginess, and the latter (an attempt to film a play in nearly
real-time takes) because of a poor performance in the title
role–but at least the writer-director hasn’t felt compelled
always to turn out mass-market stuff like “Internal Affairs”
and “Mr. Jones” (which weren’t very good anyway). (Indeed,
if you want to see Figgis’ best work, check out his steamily
noirish “Stormy Monday” and his chaste, straightforward
remake of “The Browning Version” with an immaculate performance
from Albert Finney–each a risky though formally fairly
conventional piece.)

With “Time Code,” however, Figgis is again decidedly on the
fringe, trying to expand the technical devices available to
filmmakers in the same way early silent directors did. And, for
patient and tolerant viewers, the technique he employs proves
eventually to work pretty well. In fact, where “Time Code”
falls down is in its (largely improvised) script, which
centers on the interaction of two Hollywood couples–one
consisting of a producer (Stellan Skarsgard) and his estranged
wife (Saffron Burrows), and the other matching a driven
executive (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and her lover Rose (Salma Hayek).
It seems that the producer is having an affair with Rose, a
fact that the executive comes to suspect and investigates,
with tragic results, over the course of a morning during which
Rose, an aspiring actress, claims to be having an audition.

The problem is that this romantic-entanglement scenario isn’t
terribly interesting to begin with, and three of the four
participants–Skarsgard, Burrows and Tripplehorn–play their
roles without much shading or conviction. Only Hayek, with
her radiant energy and sense of fun, really animates things.
And having the action periodically punctuated by earthquakes
seems a really labored means of signalling that some disaster
is about to strike.

Fortunately, the principals and their story are surrounded by a
number of secondary characters who energize the proceedings.
Julian Sands is consistently amusing as a blank-eyed masseur
who wanders about the building offering his services at will
(and at one point being cast in a screen test); Danny Huston
is a riot as a perpetually stoned security guard with a wide,
vacant smile; Richard Edson is dorkily funny as a porno
director; and Mia Maestro and Allesandro Nivola do a hilarious
set-piece as a prima donna and her rocker boyfriend who jointly
deliver an absurd movie pitch to Skarsgard and his crew. (The
sequence, which includes laugh-inducing musical accompaniment
by Nivola, is cleverly designed as both a justification and
a send-up of “Time Code” itself.) The continued disappearance
and reappearance of these figures, and others limned by Holly
Hunter, Kyle MacLachlan and Steven Weber, keep the movie
intriguing even when the main storyline bogs down.

It must be admitted that “Time Code” isn’t for everbody;
and even those who wind up enjoying it more than they might
have expected will have to admit that the level of humor on
display even in the picture’s best part (the last half-hour)
is, as far as showbiz satire goes, fairly thin and innocuous.
Adventurous viewers, however, should find it both an
intriguing example of Mike Figgis’ cinematic sleight-of-hand
and, apart from its technical innovation, a sporadically
amusing tale.