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Published: Friday, 10/18/2002

Abandon: Fine actors can't save thriller

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Watching Abandon is like poking around a fantastic one-stop shop for emerging Hollywood talent, one of those massive warehouse shopping clubs that advertise miles of aisles.

Grab a cart, everyone: The movie marks the first major leading role in a feature for Toledo native Katie Holmes, and she proves she can carry a film on her back with grace, oodles of complexity, and no sweat. Her leading man is the excellent Benjamin Bratt, known mainly for being the former Mr. Julia Roberts; her missing boyfriend is played by the Heath Ledgerian stud, Charlie Hunnam (Undeclared).

There's born scene-stealer Zooey Deschanel (Almost Famous) in a thankless best friend role; at Katie's other side is the sharp actress Gabrielle Union from Bring It On.

Meanwhile, behind the camera is Matthew Libatique, who shot all that beautiful stark black-and-white photography for the indie hit Pi; and running the whole show is first-time director Stephen Gaghan, who won an Academy Award for his Traffic screenplay.

That's an embarrassment of riches. And everyone brings an intelligence and understated air that's generally missing from the multiplex - one feels the influence of 1970s classics like Klute and Carnal Knowledge floating high above it all.

The problem is, and it's a pretty serious problem, these goods, these definite stars of tomorrow, are going for wholesale, being sold cheap, in a psychological thriller that starts well but sputters to a pile of pretense and easy outs and tortured plot points and say-whats.

In short: Abandon is a kind of mess. I say “a kind of mess” because it is also an honorable mess, the sort of ambitious misfire you don't get from hacks, the kind of stumble talented people sometimes make when attempting one too many dance steps. Gaghan makes individual scenes work, and he and Holmes, who plays a student nervous about moving on with life after college, capture the crushing feeling that anxiety can induce, but things don't add up.

Three words for you: Trip Hop Inferno. During a flashback, that's the title of the opera Holmes' boyfriend (Hunnam) in the movie is putting on, and it would have been a good title for a spacey, overheated whodunit like Abandon. You read that right: She attends a college where pretty boys stage opera in decaying castles, then spend the evening berating the audience for attending.

Actually, hold on; let me take something back. Abandon is not a whodunit. It's a whodunwhat or a didanybodyinfactdoanything. When the story begins, Embry, the boyfriend, is a memory. Bratt plays a detective investigating his disappearance. He's a rich kid who some think vanished because he's always had a flair for the dramatic; the cops think he killed himself.

As for Holmes, whose character is also named Katie, she thinks Embry just kind of walked out on her. This is a recurrent theme in her life. Her first memory is her father, just before he left, saying, “I love you. You can't come with me.”

Everything builds to a twist that isn't much of a twist if you've seen the movie poster or caught a commercial for the film, and Gaghan seems to sense this, so the film races among being a gothic romance and a ghost story and a character study.

This will sound like hometown boosterism, but Holmes' character is well-drawn, so much so you wish Gaghan could have just let the film settle on her.

After fitting well into a remarkable number of great ensemble films like Wonder Boys and Go, Holmes shines, capturing a backed-against-the-wall feeling college seniors have and few young actresses could get away with without overreaching and ending up wild-eyed. When Embry yells at her character, “You have no grace!”, it's the last straw. You want to shout back at the screen: “What movie are you in, pal?”



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