What Lies Beneath

The ghost haunting What Lies Beneath is not murder most foul, but the shadow of Hitchcock. I would say the spirit of Hitchcock, but the spirit of Hitchcock is playfully diabolical; Brian De Palma gleefully ripped off Hitch, and his glee was truer to the master than any of the bits of style he swiped. The director of What Lies Beneath, unfortunately, is Robert Zemeckis, who may have had the sense of humor beaten out of him after his much-underrated comedy Death Becomes Her. Zemeckis reproduces Hitchcock, but at a crawl that makes even the leisurely paced Hitch seem brisk; it’s like watching High Anxiety played straight and at the wrong speed. If this is the spirit of Hitchcock, it’s a very spiritless spirit.

I always feel the need to say that Zemeckis is still one of the top directors out there. What Lies Beneath is immaculately and handsomely assembled, as was his Contact, and the Oscar-eating Forrest Gump before that. Perhaps he’s simply going through a similar rut to the one his friend Steven Spielberg went through pre-Schindler’s List — giving his all to scripts that don’t give much back. This one, by Clark Gregg, paints by the numbers so ineptly that the result is a chaotic smear on a canvas. Zemeckis’ work here is like a painstaking photo of that bad painting. If he wanted to do a suspense thriller, he should’ve held out for a better one.

In what seems less like a plausible marriage than a studio decision, Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer — he a scientist, she a former cellist — go through the motions of love for a few early scenes. As if anticipating how little chemistry Ford and Pfeiffer have together, Gregg’s script keeps them apart for most of the film. Alone in their Martha-Stewart-worthy Vermont lakeside home, Pfeiffer has lots of time to hear strange noises and glimpse odd sights. A door opens by itself; a tub fills up by itself. Trouble is, Zemeckis repeats these omens at least three times each, risking such snarky audience comments as “Yep, there’s the tub again.”

Pfeiffer fears that the ghostly manifestations have to do with a quarreling couple next door; she suspects that the husband killed his wife and that her ghost is trying to contact Pfeiffer. Those who’ve seen the trailer for What Lies Beneath know differently, but they don’t know the whole story. I’ll say only that Harrison Ford, for the most part giving the latest in a string of somnambulistic performances, must have been sold on the script on the power of its climax, because for most of the movie he’s little more than a high-priced supporting actor. It’s Pfeiffer’s movie, and though I dislike how she wins our sympathy by making us feel protective of her fragile heroine — I prefer her stronger and gutsier — she wins it anyway, creating a believably haunted woman. Too bad the script isn’t worth her effort.

I grew to love The Sixth Sense over repeated viewings; that was the sort of thriller that gains substance in your memory and creates the nagging but warm feeling of not only needing to see it again, but wanting to. It wasn’t a supernatural gimmick or a surprise ending that gave the movie great word of mouth and attracted viewers back for more; it was its human heart, the gentle rapport between the boy and his psychiatrist or his mother. What Lies Beneath has about ten times as many “Boo!” scenes as The Sixth Sense, but isn’t a tenth as haunting or as touching. It’s just gimmick all the way, and that extends to the ending, which toys with the audience’s star-power expectations in a way that feels thoroughly artificial. There’s a good, nail-biting sequence in a tub (yep, there’s the tub again), but the events leading to it and following it are borderline laughable, without the heedless joy that distinguished, say, De Palma’s thrillers or Kenneth Branagh’s lovably overwrought Dead Again. Ridiculous thriller moments that don’t invite you to giggle along with the director are in deep trouble. And I keep flashing back to Zemeckis’ drawn-out staging of the “Boo!” scenes, as if he were determined to prolong the suspense so much that the audience would squirm out of its seats. Squirm they will, but maybe for other reasons.

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