Wednesday, October 29, 1997

Playing God

Posted By on Wed, Oct 29, 1997 at 12:00 AM

People are said to be "playing God" when they begin to believe they can actually control things beyond their capacity as human beings. In the case of Dr. Eugene Sands (David Duchovny), it takes on the added meaning of thinking the whole world revolves around him.

A surgeon more interested in power and status than in people, Dr. Sands once operated on a patient while high (in a flashback that turns Monty Python bloody) and lost his license to practice medicine. As Playing God opens, he's come to a club to purchase his favorite drug, a synthetic heroin.

After a man standing next to him is shot, Eugene intervenes, turning the bar into a makeshift operating table and saving his life. This action brings the defrocked doctor to the attention of Raymond Blossom (Timothy Hutton), a counterfeiter with a multicultural gang of thugs.

Eugene easily becomes a part of this criminal circle, operating on Raymond's injured "friends" for large cash payments and the longing looks of his sultry girlfriend, Claire (Angelina Jolie, acting with her lips again).

The appearance of a persistent FBI agent (Michael Massee), as well as a turf war with some nasty Russians, turns this cozy setup into a vicious but very predictable, cat-and-mouse game.

Although Eugene learns his lesson about being the center of the universe, Playing God actually does revolve around David Duchovny. While he can't be faulted entirely for this paint-by-numbers schlock, his reserved acting style is strikingly at odds with this B-grade thriller, the undistinguished debut film of both director Andy Wilson and screenwriter Mark Haskell Smith.

Duchovny's stiffness and formality work well on "The X-Files" or in films like Kalifornia (1993), where he played straight man to Brad Pitt and Juliette Lewis' trailer-park psychos. But there's nothing in Playing God to hook on to.

Any complexity is explained away in the literal-minded script, especially by Eugene's narration, which not only reiterates the obvious but throws in half-baked existential musings to boot.

In Playing God, even though Eugene has supposedly hit the skids, nothing about him indicates real squalor (he even ingests his heroin in a glass of milk).

This is doubly true of Timothy Hutton. His babyface features from Ordinary People (1980) have grown hard, and he looks quite spiffy in his gangster chic clothing, but Hutton doesn't have the aura of being really dangerous.

Even as he emerges, in silhouette, from the ocean, the mysterious and imposing effect this is supposed to have on both Duchovny and the audience is ruined by Hutton's jaunty, nice-guy wave hello.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com.

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