The Austin Chronicle

Head Above Water

Rated PG-13, 92 min. Directed by Jim Wilson. Starring Harvey Keitel, Cameron Diaz, Craig Sheffer, Billy Zane, Shay Duffin.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., June 27, 1997

It's a strange feeling to see Harvey Keitel in a comedy, even if it is a ghoulishly morbid one like this. American cinema's premier tough-guy screen icon as comical Cameron Diaz's husband? Well, okay, he did do the execreble Monkey Trouble three years ago, but that was more an exercise in self-restraint on the viewer's part (“I will not throw the VCR through the window, I will not throw the VCR…”) than an honest comedy. Head Above Water, however, takes Keitel's improbable comedy instincts and pushes them up past Spinal Tap's proverbial “11,” and makes first-time director Wilson's film a nicely nervy horror show-cum-extended-vaudeville routine. Keitel plays George, a well-respected circuit court judge, who, along with his much younger wife Nathalie (Diaz), takes a vacation at her family's summer home on a remote island off the coast of Maine. The only other inhabitant is Lance (Sheffer), Nathalie's childhood sweetheart and adult friend. Trouble enters the idyllic setting when Nathalie's druggy, alcoholic ex-boyfriend Kent (Zane) shows up uninvited while Lance and George are out deep-sea fishing. Kent is part of Nathalie's dark past, and a bitter rival of the more staid George. After a night of resisting Kent's drunken, amorous advances, Nathalie wakes to find her ex naked and dead in her bedroom, just as George and Lance pull their boat up to the dock. Panicked by the sudden corpse and terrified of what George might do if he finds out Kent spent the night, she dumps the body in the basement and sets off a series of unexpected misadventures that remind one of the corpse problem in Hitchcock's The Trouble With Harry. What to do with an unwanted cadaver is the question here, along with: How the hell did he die in the first place? It's not too long before George finds out what has happened, but instead of going to the police, he opts for a less publicity-prone avenue out of the situation and, naturally, fails utterly. Wilson's film is a light bit of necro-fluff; there's never really much more going on than three people trying to stash a corpse, but the director keeps things zipping along with a marvelously sardonic wit. Whatever you may think about Diaz's thespian talents, she's a terrific comedienne, all fluttery gestures and cockeyed charm. Keitel likewise sustains a single comic note throughout without wearing it too thin. As George starts to drink heavily and fall apart at the seams, Keitel tosses some of his trademark nastiness into the mix and the film really takes off. It's not a classic by any stretch of the imagination -- Head Above Water is simply too thin for that -- but it is an endearingly black comedy, with more than enough grisly chuckles to keep it afloat over its ricocheting 92-minute course.

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