1999, R, 104 min. Directed by Roland Joffé. Starring Patricia Arquette, Dermot Mulroney, Ellen DeGeneres, Don Johnson, Mary-Louise Parker, Ray McKinnon, Alex Rocco, Andre Gregory.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 16, 1999
From a story by Austin Heart of Film Festival winner Ron Peer (the final film is credited to Peer, Joel Cohen, and Alec Sokolow) comes this sporadically ingenious puzzle box of a film, a deeply cynical, blacker-than-black murder mystery that struggles valiantly to stay one step ahead of the viewer and succeeds more often than not. Drawing its tone (if not its story) from sources as varied as Jim Thompson novels and classic film noir conventions to modern-day whodunits, Joffé (The Killing Fields, The Mission) constructs an intricate house of cards with his scheming characters and then … blows. Mulroney plays Jake Dunmore, an ad executive and spinmeister who's currently lodged in a liquor bottle. His job at a prestigious agency is increasingly threatened by his bizarre, out-of-control rants and behavior, and he's beginning to suspect that his wife, Sandra (Arquette), is having an affair behind his back. She is, of course, and it's with Jake's older brother Ben, who bides his time between covering for his brother at the agency and playing Bach (and schtupping Sandra) at the local church. Also in this tremulous mix is Peggy (Parker), a bubbly, scatterbrained junior staff member who's apparently developing the hots for Ben. Nothing is what it at first seems, though, and when Ben plunges to his death one night, courtesy of Jake and Sandra, who are intent on securing older brother's $4 million life insurance policy, a ravenous appetite for both murder and instant wealth is cracked open, leaving the surviving players to duke it out amongst themselves to see who will be the last man (or woman) breathing. Also on board is DeGeneres as a flip, supercilious detective who may or may not know more than she's letting on. DeGeneres has come into her own as a comic actress (as opposed to simply a comic), and her obvious, unaffected screen presence -- half bemused cynic, half bewildered onlooker -- fuels much of Goodbye Lover. In a picture filled with comic turns, some quite good, some better than good, DeGeneres is at her peak, tweaking the action around her with various dark jibes and generally having a ball with the material. Patricia Arquette carries the movie -- she's in a good 65% of the scenes -- and it ought to be noted that she does a bang-up job. Granted, Joffé has placed his characters in somewhat of a slightly left-of-center milieu (there's a definite surrealist touch going on here, and you know this isn't the real world), but Arquette pulls off the convoluted role of scheming, scamming wife-mistress far better than expected, crinkled grin and all. This marks something of a return to form for Joffé as well. After (apparently) losing his way with the overeager City of Joy and The Scarlet Letter, he's now forsworn the righteous and the adapted in favor of more earthy pleasures, and while not yet back up to the level of his early genius, he's obviously making a return in that direction. Good for him, and good for us.