Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Katie Holmes, Benjamin Bratt, Zooey Deschanel, Charlie Hunnam, Fred Ward, Gabrielle Union
Written by: Stephen Gaghan, based on the novel "Adam's Fall" by Sean Desmond
Directed by: Stephen Gaghan
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for drug and alcohol content, sexuality, some violence and language
Running Time: 99
Date: 03/01/2002
IMDB

Abandon (2002)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

White Scholar Crime

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Screenwriters have always been just about the lowest form of writer onthe planet; in the grand scheme of things, even the people who writecopy for the sides of diaper boxes get more money and respect. So it'sonly natural when a put-upon screenwriter wants to become a director andtake charge of his or her own material.

Sometimes it's a good thing; Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder became directors to preserve their written material. Even the great Ben Hecht (Nothing Sacred, Notorious) tried his hand at directing a couple of times, and ended up with weird little gems like 1940's Angels Over Broadway.

But I can't imagine why Stephen Gaghan would feel the need to take on the job, especially when director Steven Soderbergh turned his uneven Traffic screenplay into an Oscar-winning hit. For most critics, Soderbergh was able to disguise the fact that Michael Douglas' character was limp and useless and that Catherine Zeta-Jones' character made no sense.

Now at the helm of his own film, Gaghan doesn't possess the skill to cover up its weak spots. In other words, Abandon, which opens today in Bay Area theaters, does well when it deals with human beings in real situations but falters when it tries to pour on the suspense.

Katie Holmes stars in Abandon as a smart college student named Katie who struggles with her thesis paper, job interviews, and finishing school. Her best friend Samantha (Zooey Deschanel) has the ability to relax and crack wise at everything, but Katie doesn't share that helpful skill.

Two years ago it seems, her true love -- a rich, orphaned, handsome artist type named Embry (Charlie Hunnam) -- simply disappeared. Katie hasn't quite recovered. Now, with everything else on her plate a detective (Benjamin Bratt) turns up investigating the case. It seems that if he can find a body, some corporation will finally get Embry's untouched millions. On top of everything, Katie has begun seeing Embry lurking around again.

I'm usually not all that swift at figuring out mysteries like this -- The Sixth Sense and The Others both knocked me for a loop. But I figured out Abandon surprisingly early based on a couple of solid clues. And yet, because Gaghan manages to keep moving back and forth between his everyday human interaction and this failed mystery, he keeps our attention.

Part of the credit goes to Gaghan's gift with the actors. Bratt sinks his teeth into his reformed alcoholic cop who explains that you don't do police work for the money but secretly lacks the passion needed for the job. He'd much rather read Graham Greene or hammer a few nails into the frame of his mountain cabin.

Holmes remains an interior kind of actor, relying mostly on her considerable charm and good looks. Fortunately, she fits this role well and pulls it off. Deschanel provides a breath of fresh air with her sardonic smartmouth, almost the same character she played in Mumford, Almost Famous and The Good Girl.

Watching these folks mull over their destinies -- and attempt to keep their professional faces on when they simply want to close their eyes and forget it all -- makes Abandon almost interesting enough to work and too difficult to dismiss entirely.

But, I suppose the focus -- the selling point -- is the mystery story, which Gaghan blunders completely, except for a nice, wicked ending which stings like a fresh cut lemon. It was an ending good enough, and unexpected enough, to put a smile back on my face after nearly an hour of boredom.

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