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Jack Nicholson is His Seedy Best in Blood & Wine
movie review by Gary Johnson

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]
Blood & Wine will throw Jack Nicholson fans for a loop. The fans who love it when he arches his eyebrows and plays the naughty little boy all grown up (as in Witches of Eastwick and Terms of Endearment) are going to find him playing a pretty despicable character in Blood & Wine. Unlike those other characters which showed us Jack having a fun time (as in Batman and Mars Attacks!), Blood & Wine becomes a harrowing experience with Jack playing the alternately seedy and debonair Alex Gates, the owner of a fine wine store.

Jack Nicholson and Jennifer Lopez in Blood & Wine

(©1997 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.)

At first glance, you might think Alex is in an enviable position: he's well-cultured (and a little uppity about it: "I don't fly economy," he says), he has a respected business in Miami, his wife is intelligent and wealthy, and he keeps a beautiful mistress. The future seems rosy. However, we soon find out Alex is stealing money from his wife, his son hates him, he argues with his wife constantly, and creditors are at his door. Something has to give.

With his back against the wall, he decides to rob one of his rich customers of a million-dollar necklace and enlists the aid of gambling buddy Victor Spansky (Michael Caine), who also happens to be a professional safe-cracker. But this relationship soon looks to be on rocky terms: "There's no such thing as honor among thieves. It's a myth," says Victor. It becomes clear rightaway that we aren't in for another version of To Catch a Thief.

Jack Nicholson and Michael Caine in Blood & Wine

(©1997 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.)

This definitely isn't the setup for a comedy, which may come as a shock for fans of Nicholson and Caine: little that Alex and Victor do is funny. Instead, they are a sleazy and pathetic duo, who have just enough (barely enough) know-how to pull off the heist. But not enough know-how to hang onto the necklace afterwards.

Unlike the bright and garish colors we usually get for movies set in Miami, director Bob Rafelson and the other filmmakers give us a dark, shadowy world akin to film noir. Only a muddy, yellowish light dares enter Alex and Suzanne's home. And many of the scenes, particularly in the movie's second half, are filmed at night.

But the darkest part of Blood & Wine comes from how the characters talk to one another. Alex and Suzanne (played by Judy Davis) argue like George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. They've obviously covered the same terrain in countless arguments in the past. They know what buttons to push. They grind in their retorts, sprinkling salt in the wounds.

Jack Nicholson and Jennifer Lopez in Blood & Wine

(©1997 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.)

Victor is a marvelous creation in the hands of Michael Caine. With a pasty face, a hacking cough, and a bulging stomach that rolls over his belt ("You look like a janitor," says Alex), Victor conveys absolute desperation. He knows he is seriously ill, so he wants one big score. And this makes him especially dangerous, like a wounded lion.

And Jack Nicholson delivers one of his finest performances of the '90s. It's not the kind of audience pleasing performance that garnered him legions of fans who love every mischievous raise of his eyebrows. His performance is closest to his aggrieved father in The Crossing Guard--which audiences stayed away from in droves. Nicholson makes Alex Gates attractive on the surface, but just below the surface, we see the anger and desperation of a man who doesn't have control over his life. We see him ordering his stepson to put on a shirt, as if he's handing down great wisdom, and we sense how his failure must be eating away at his insides. All he has left is his sleazy brand of debonair, and even that is starting to slowly turn into bitter, acid-tongued cynicism.

However, notwithstanding the good performances, Blood & Wine stumbles and falls as the story shifts to the conflict between father and stepson. The movie tries to set up this conflict, even using Jennifer Lopez as the target of their affection: Lopez plays Alex's mistress, but she falls in love Jason. But Jason (played by Stephen Dorff) is a lonely pretty boy, who seems lost from a prime-time TV soap opera (e.g. Melrose Place). Rafelson and company have created a wonderful setup for the story, and a good second act, but without a good finish. As Jason struggles to protect his mother and get her away from Alex, the movie never lets us get under his surface--which it must do or the confrontation at the end of the movie won't pack much of a punch. Even the affair with Gabriella (Lopez) fails to create much interest.

Rafelson says Blood & Wine is the third part of a trilogy of studies of dysfunctional families. The trilogy started with the classic Five Easy Pieces and continued with The King of Marvin Gardens (again with Nicholson). In Blood & Wine, the character of Alex is a masterful creation and a worthy addition to Rafelson's trilogy and the movie is a gritty, sobering study of domestic desperation, but the conflict with the stepson falls flat. I wish Rafelson had jettisoned the character of Jason completely and taken the movie in a different direction after Alex and Victor steal the jewelry. Rafelson has created a trio of fascinating characters in Alex, Victor, and Suzanne, but he doesn't know what to do with them.

Fox Searchlight Pictures Presents
A Recorded Picture Company presentation


Alex GatesJack Nicholson
JasonStephen Dorff
GabrielleJennifer Lopez
Suzanne GatesJudy Davis
Victor SpanskyMichael Caine
Directed byBob Rafelson
Produced byJeremy Thomas
Screenplay byNick Villiers
Alison Cross
Story byNick Villiers and
Bob Rafelson
Director of PhotographyNewton Thomas Sigel
Production DesignerRichard Sylbert
MusicMichal Lorenc
Costume DesignerLindy Hemming
EditorSteven Cohen
Executive producersBernie Williams
Chris Autry
Co-ProducersHercules Bellville and
Noah Golden
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