Saturday, June 21, 2008
“A wretched Tarantino rip-off, this trashy thriller aspires to flip black comedy but manages only moments of unintentional hilarity…Duchovny doesn’t so much sleepwalk his way through the film as remain in a coma.”
-Liese Spencer, Sight and Sound-
“Playing God is David Duchovny's first starring role, unless you count Showtime's Red Shoe Diaries episodes. It seems crafted to match his new stardom on The X-Files, and it does: He has the psychic weight to be a leading man and an action hero, even though his earlier TV and film roles might not have revealed it. And he also has a certain detachment, a way of standing above the action, that stars such as Clint Eastwood and Robert Mitchum have.”
-Roger Ebert’s Original 3 Star Review-
It’s funny when you find out that a personal favorite film of yours was almost universally hated by both the critics and public when it was released. I actually just recently began to comprehend how much I should probably consider Andy Wilson’s 1997 feature Playing God starring David Duchovny, Angelina Jolie and Timothy Hutton a ‘guilty pleasure’ but since I really don’t believe in that whole idea, I will just celebrate it as a film I like very much…a hyperkinetic B-movie that has always reminded me of the kind of vehicle Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney might have made together early in their careers with one devastating girl thrown in for good measure.
David Duchovny had certainly done a lot of work before his iconic and much loved Fox Mulder came into view on The X-Files, but by 1997 Mulder had became virtually all the talented actor was known for. Playing God was to mark Duchovny’s breakthrough role on the big screen and his first major step away from the character that had made him a household name. Unfortunately Playing God, a miserable failure financially and critically, did neither and it is often overlooked by even the most rabid Duchovny and Jolie fans…a mistake as it is a key work for both of them.
Playing God marked the American and big screen directorial debut from British born Andy Wilson, a man who had previously only had his hand in some British television (Cracker being one series) and a handful of music videos (with the band Underworld being most prominent). Wilson directs Playing God like a love letter to the kind of modern neo-noir genre that began to populate American cinemas soon after Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs first began to make a major impact. Bloody, brutal and using every trick in the book (from slow motion shoot-outs to classic car chases), Playing God is very much a film aware of the trappings of its genre but it delights in playing directly into them, making it a much more watchable and successful venture than some of the more pretentious offerings from the period.
Working from a script by relative novice Mark Haskell Smith, Wilson’s Playing God is a successful hard boiled adrenaline ride fueled by three incredibly charismatic performers that is only marred by a last act that has studio interference written all over it. I have always suspected that if Wilson was able to revisit this film for a Special Edition DVD and reinstate the original darker ending then the picture would have a shot at becoming a small cult film instead of the footnote it is usually labeled as.
Future Traffic Producer Laura Bickford reportedly put a lot of time and energy into Playing God, a project she was excited about in the mid nineties but one that would cause her to nearly reconsider her career all together (according to Sharon Waxman’s book Rebels on the Backlot) and that makes sense as Playing God does have a compromised feel about it (part of which is due to the fact that the film's original backer Columbia Pictures stepped out just two weeks prior to shooting leaving the production in total distress before the camera's even rolled) but I will stand behind my opinion that Playing God is a very successful and tough modern noir that despite the flawed last act works as well as any other ‘Tarantino knockoff’ from the mid to late nineties you care to name.
Playing God’s plot, one that allows its leading man to be a heavily flawed and easily corruptible junkie, is an intriguing one. Centering on a destroyed doctor named Eugene Sands who has lost his license due to having a patient die during a routine operation because of his addiction to Phenolcitrate (synthetic heroin), Playing God begins after Sands saves a man’s life who has been shot at a club where he buys his drugs. Sands is then brought fairly willingly into a life of crime by a hot shot schemer with big ideas named Raymond Blossom (Timothy Hutton) and by Blossom’s smoldering girlfriend with a big secret named Claire (Jolie).
As clever as the set up is for Playing God and as great as everything is from the Trip-Hop inspired soundtrack (a real keeper) by Richard Hartley to the kinetic cutting style of former Coppola and Roeg collaborator Louise Rubacky, Wilson’s film is basically a showcase for three extremely charismatic and distinctive stars…it’s the kind of film that helped shape Hollywood…Playing God is an old fashioned Star driven piece and Wilson clearly realizes and plays into this making his film a much smarter production than it might have been in more experienced hands.
Even though he has an Oscar sitting on his shelf (for Robert Redford’s superb Ordinary People), Timothy Hutton is almost always overlooked as one of the great actors of his generation. I’ve always though that if Playing God would have found an audience back in 97 then Hutton’s career would have went into major turn around mode, as his delightfully over the top work as Raymond Blossom is a real blast…the kind of bombastic Molotov Cocktail performance that you typically only see an Al Pacino or Eric Roberts delivering and Hutton really sells it. He’s great as Blossom and it’s an infectiously fun performance to watch.
Roger Ebert would write in his positive review of the film that, “And the surprise in the movie is Timothy Hutton, as the villain. I sense the curtain rising on the next act of his career. Having outgrown the sensitive-boy roles that established him (Ordinary People, Made in Heaven), he returns to his dark side, to notes he struck in such films as The Falcon and the Snowman and Q & A. He shows here what sets the interesting villains apart from the ordinary ones…Hutton creates a character instead of simply filling a space”. I agree completely…Handsome, charming and sinister to the max, Hutton’s Blossom is one of the most memorable villains of the nineties and the fact that he makes you like him in the process makes the performance even more resonate.
Angelina Jolie was at the dawn of her significant career in 1997 and with Playing God she asserts herself as the most fascinating American actress of her generation. Never mind that she is essentially just playing ‘the girl’ here, Jolie is fantastic in the film and like Marlon Brando at the beginning of his career it is impossible to take your eyes off her. She would call the film "very rock n roll and fun and loud and say-what-you-want-to-say, dress wild and love wild", which of course goes a ways towards describing her performance in the film itself. Co-producer Melanie Green was quoted as saying that Angelina has "the wisdom of an old soul...the grace and style of an older woman" but in Playing God she is vitally young and in her role as "the girl" she manages to project that certain vitality that can only happen in your twenties incredibly well.
Within a year a Playing God’s release, Jolie would strike gold with her devastating turn as doomed model Gia Carangi in Gia and she would be the highlight in Playing By Heart, a film that included everyone from Sean Connery to Gena Rowlands to Duchovny’s X-Files co-star, Gillian Anderson. Playing God would mark the last time Jolie would be cast as just “the girl” and it remains one of the most important if little seen of her early roles.
Wilson’s film belongs to David Duchovny though. Featured in nearly every scene and playing Sands with the kind of understatement and subtlety not seen since the likes of McQueen, Newman and Redford in the seventies, Duchovny is fascinating as the addicted doctor who is “always looking for a new way to fuck up.” Showing off his natural humor while still managing to interject a lifetime worth of hurt into Sands, Playing God should have been a major coup (as his follow up film, the wonderful and endearing Return To Me should have been) for the talented actor but most critics (Ebert and a few others accepted) didn’t seem to know what to make of Duchovny’s un-showy performance. It’s a captivating and extremely interesting performance that I think will surprise people who have always put off watching this film due to the reception it got.
Playing God appeared a couple of weeks before Halloween in 1997 and was out of the theaters by the time the trick or treater’s were finishing up their yearly bag of candy. Making less than five million at the box-office and being savaged by the critics, Playing God proved to be one of the biggest bombs of the year and it failed to make David Duchovny into the movie star a lot of us have known for a long time that he should be. The film faired a bit better in Europe but not much and it appeared quietly on home video in the early part of 98 where it didn’t find much of an audience either.
Duchovny was reportedly unhappy with the final product due to the studio forced ending (he admitted later that it was "not the movie I wanted to make" and that "the character is redeemed because it's a hollywood movie...I didn't want to redeem him, but there were other people involved.") and Wilson went back to working in British television shortly after but Playing God is a film that I’m not guilty about loving. It’s a classic genre piece told in a distinctly nineties style and I haven’t tired of revisiting once a year or so in the decade that has passed since it was first released. I’d love to see what the film was supposed to have been originally, but I must admit that I’m really happy with what it became…even if it is a lonely club to be a member of.
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