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It's hard to resist comparing The Devil's Advocate with Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby. Both movies give us a young couple in New York who find themselves involved with the Devil. However, while Rosemary's Baby took the subtle route of psychological horror, The Devil's Advocate goes for bombast while supplying evocative, sledge-hammer style visuals. Director Taylor Hackford eschews subtlety in favor of deliriously overwrought set designs and over-the-top acting. For example, Al Pacino plays a lawyer named John Milton who might in fact be the Devil himself. So what does his main office look like? A huge boiler room. Hmm. . . . The set designs are impressive, yes, and they're certainly atmospheric, but they might as well pulled out a hammer and smacked the audience over the head.
The story concerns a hot-shot lawyer from Florida who has never (NEVER!) lost a case--no matter how guilty his client. Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) always finds a way to play to the jury's sympathies and plant the seed of "reasonable doubt." Even when he knows his client is guilty, he'll destroy prosecution witnesses in order to secure "not guilty" verdicts. He and his wife, Mary Ann (Charlize Theron), have a good life in Florida, but one day a lawyer from New York shows up with a tempting offer: come to New York and join a powerful law firm with offices around the world. Against the wishes of Kevin's mother, who pleads with them not to go, Kevin and Mary Ann follow the money to New York. Soon after arriving, Kevin meets John Milton (Al Pacino), the head of the law firm. If you're thinking the name John Milton is a bit obvious--as in "Paradise Lost"--well, that's how this movie operates. Kevin soon finds himself embroiled in a situation far beyond his control, where the real struggle is over his own soul.
At one point, Al Pacino was one of the finest actors in the world. Unfortunately, he won the Best Actor Academy Award for one of his weaker performances, Scent of a Woman, and now he seems to think that acting means shouting and histrionics. We occasionally get glimpses of the old Pacino, as in a scene where Milton meets Mary Ann at a party and begins to charm her. In this scene, Milton oozes charisma, and we can see how his seductive touch can bewilder most people. But in other scenes, Pacino is all too quick to turn up his voice and shout.
Unlike Rosemary's Baby, which gave us horror that played off of the very real anxiety of child birth--who is this child? what is this growing inside me?--The Devil's Advocate gives us a safe little horror tale. Director Hackford isn't concerned with finding the hot spot buttons that make us squirm. He simply bombards us with visuals.
If you like your movies as subtle as a brick, you'll probably like The Devil's Advocate. But if you prefer movies that work by suggestion and nuance, you'll probably find this movie tough going.
[rating: 2½ of 4 stars]