Early in Palmetto, yet another tedious film noir clone, Woody Harrelson is fixing Elisabeth Shue a drink — vodka with a twist. He turns to her and says, “We don’t have any more twists.” I wish the same were true of the movie, which is all twists — and, what’s worse, strained and unconvincing twists. This is the kind of thriller that could end with the hero discovering that the whole movie was his dog’s bad dream; that would make about as much sense as Palmetto‘s actual ending.

Harrelson is Harry Barber, a writer just released from jail (he was framed). Bitter at having lost two years of his life (I can relate — I just lost two hours of mine), Harry is looking to stick it to the system. A blond temptress named Rhea (Shue) spots Harry in a bar and gets him interested; after some boring hanky-panky, she outlines her plan. She has a rich husband and a teenage stepdaughter (Chloe Sevigny). Harry will pretend to kidnap the stepdaughter, the hubby will cough up $500,000, and Harry will pocket ten percent.

If there’s one rule in modern movies, it’s that no one should do a kidnapping film noir unless his name is Joel Coen or Ethan Coen. Fargo, for instance, was more about its frozen locale and quirky inhabitants than about an abduction scam. Palmetto (the title unfortunately evokes Fargo) is set in Florida, yet it has none of the sweat and funk and local color of Miami novels by Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard. It doesn’t even have an alligator. Even with the stock hey-we’re-in-Florida shots of swamps and houseboats, the film might as well be set in Massachusetts.

Harrelson does his stubbly-stupid-loser shtick, which he did better in White Men Can’t Jump. He’s not credible at all as a noir hero, especially when the costume people make him wear a fedora, which is often. Everyone else is fatally miscast. Shue gives an utterly autopilot performance — I stared at the screen in mild shock, looking in vain for the same actress who embodied complex characters in Leaving Las Vegas and The Trigger Effect. Sevigny, looking unhealthily like Fiona Apple, seems lost in the tangle of plot twists (which invalidate her character anyway). Gina Gershon has a hot first scene as Harry’s loyal wife, but then has nothing to do.

And I’d love to know which genius at Castle Rock read the script (by E. Max Frye, who wrote the superior Something Wild) and decided that it’d be perfect for Volker Schlöndorff, the überserious director of The Tin Drum and The Handmaid’s Tale. As I’ve said before, you can’t do noir straight today; it helps to treat it as a black-comic goof, as Oliver Stone did in U-Turn. Schlöndorff seems totally at sea here. The tone is inconsistent and baffling; if we’re meant to take the plot seriously, we don’t, and if it’s meant to be funny, it isn’t. And what is it with E. Max Frye and dangerous women wearing wigs? Did he have a bad experience with a mannequin as a child?

The only source of amusement in Palmetto is counting all the bonehead things Harry does — few of which come back to haunt him, as in a true noir. By the time Woody Harrelson was dangling above a vat of acid, and Elisabeth Shue was doing a Sunset Boulevard exit in one of her 59 wigs (it looks as if a black cat died on her head), I didn’t care if I never saw another thriller about stolen money or clever violence or elaborate double-crosses or horny idiots led to their doom by voluptuous vixens. It’s tired, and it makes me tired just writing about it. 1

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