Selling Our Souls

Article excerpt

Hollywood is the one devil you can always resist.

Retellings, in one form or another, of the Faust legend may constitute a trend in Hollywood this autumn. We had an oblique treatment of it in Playing God where the hang-dog David Duchovny as a de-masked surgeon (he lost a patient on the operating table when he was high on drugs) gets a chance to practice medicine again at the invitation of a vicious gangster, played by Timothy Hutton. "It's the old story," he says in his lugubrious voiceover: "the choice to be a slave in heaven or a star in hell.... And hell does not always look like hell. On a good day, it can look a lot like L.A." The rest of the movie, written by Mark Haskell Smith and directed by Andy Wilson, trades on similar, not-quite-successful attempts at wit and profundity, but its real point is simply to be hip. Dr. Faust wears blue jeans, Mephistopheles has dyed blond hair, and Gretchen (Angelina Jolie) has the most amazing lips since Brigitte Bardot. It's the ewige Weibe with attitude.

Call me old-fashioned, but I want something more out of a movie than just the feeling that I have to be cool to appreciate it. Devil's Advocate offers us a more moralized Faust in the person of Keanu Reeves, a small-town lawyer in Florida who suddenly finds himself courted and offered a senior partnership in the devil's own law firm-which is naturally in Manhattan. The movie also gets the quote about reigning in hell versus serving in heaven closer to the way John Milton wrote it-which may be why it names its Mephistopheles, played by Al Pacino, after him. But although it presents us with a real moral conflict and makes the essential point that the devil's temptations are effectless unless we freely choose to yield to them, the film itself yields to a diabolical temptation to exaggerated, Grand Guignol effects. It allowsItPacino his natural tendency to overact and it indulges itself in a lot of those computergenerated morphings that, however much they may cost, always look cheap to me.

Even the supposed moral counterweight to the devil, Judith Ivey in the role of Mr. Reeves's Bible-bashing mother, is made to look as camp and silly as religious people almost invariably are in the movies. The filmmakers themselves (Taylor Hackford, director, Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy, writers) don't take their material any more seriously than do Al D'Amato or Don King, both of whom put in goodnatured cameos as close friends of the devil. Nor are we meant to take it seriously. Al Pacino might as well have been given a red suit with horns and a tail, so far is he, like the temptations he has to offer (megabucks, impossibly eager women, media stardom), removed from the ordinary experience of his audience.

Paul Thomas Anderson, the talented young auteur of Boogie Nights, at least understands this much. His Mephistopheles, played by a marvelously raffish Burt Reynolds, is much more like the real thing, offering Mark Wahlberg the chance to be a porn "star" without himself realizing-so complete is his moral blindness-that such stardom is anything but what his victim imagines it to be. It is not with the monarchy of hell offered to Keanu Reeves that the real devil wins us over, but with much more paltry temptations-and he does so by means of our own self-delusion. The problem with Boogie Nights is that, like Mr. Reynolds's benevolent porn producer, Jack Homer ("What a good boy am I!"), Mr. Anderson shares many of his characters' delusions. To him, as to David Duchovny, hell on a good day looks a lot like L.A.-or at least the San Fernando Valley.

Thus the pathetically incompetent but rather sweet "Dirk Diggler" (Mr. Wahlberg) cheerfully embraces degradation, if not damnation, for the sake of forming a sad but oddly loving little family-the family he has never known-with Jack as the daddy, Dirk's co-star Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) as the mommy, and the equally stupid and waiflike "Rollergirl" (Heather Graham) as his sister. …