Like a politician near election time, 2 Days in the Valley tries to be so many things that it ends up not being much of anything. Sometimes it’s a self-consciously “hip,” quirky crime movie. Sometimes it leans towards tearjerking drama (and falls flat on its face). Sometimes it’s funny, most often not. One constant is its lovely cinematography (by Oliver Wood). Another is its utter insignificance.
2 Days was clearly 1996’s attempt to strike gold on the West Coast a third time, after 1995’s Get Shorty and (of course) 1994’s Pulp Fiction. These films boast characters you only meet in movies (or in L.A.), and 2 Days gives us hit men (James Spader, Danny Aiello), vice cops (Eric Stoltz, Jeff Daniels), a suicidal movie director (Paul Mazursky), an Olympic skier (Teri Hatcher), an art dealer with kidney stones (Greg Cruttwell), and a nurse (Marsha Mason). A nurse? What’s this, an everyday person? Get her out of here!
The plot, by writer-director John Herzfeld (a veteran TV-movie director whose previous claim to theatrical fame was the awful John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John vehicle Two of a Kind), trips over itself trying to link all these characters. Mostly, it doesn’t. The hit men pay a visit to the skier’s ex-husband (Peter Horton), looking for money. Spader double-crosses Aiello, who escapes and stumbles onto the art dealer’s house. Everybody else gets shoehorned into the plot, largely thanks to coincidence.
Yes, I know: Pulp Fiction would have been nowhere without coincidence. But at least Quentin Tarantino had the courage of his ironic convictions. It didn’t matter that we didn’t take those plot twists seriously; nothing else in the movie was meant to be taken seriously either. But Herzfeld’s ironic detachment falters. He fumbles for pathos in scenes involving the despondent director Mazursky and vice cop Daniels, who misses his little son, taken from him by divorce.
Daniels’ character is the film’s oddest inconsistency. For most of the movie, the vice cop is defined almost entirely by his obsession with busting a newly opened massage parlor. Why? The parlor doesn’t figure in the story. Midway through the film, he’s wrapping a birthday gift for his estranged son and reading a letter declaring him unfit to serve on the force. This is the first we hear about either of these problems; it’s also the last we see of Daniels. Classic sign of severe pre-release trimming.
The movie works up to a nasty climax that never comes; mostly people just shoot each other, and Teri Hatcher throws herself into a vicious spandex catfight with Spader’s squeeze (Charlize Theron). Some guys may find this arousing; I found it embarrassing. John Herzfeld is yet another director who sees women either as violent babes or maternal blankets to keep men warm (for instance, Glenne Headly as the art dealer’s assistant, who falls in unlikely love with Aiello).
Two actors rescue 2 Days from complete tedium. Aiello has fun with his balding, canine-phobic hit man. And James Spader lends the movie more gravity than it earns. He manages to be both threatening and laid-back. But sometimes actors subtly lie back out of a movie they dislike, and I suspect that’s what Spader’s chilly, detached performance is about. Can’t say I blame him.