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With: Jeff Goldblum, Anne Heche, Nancy Travis, Timothy Olyphant, Joe Santos, Richard T. Jones, Kim Coates, Paige Moss, Casey Biggs, Peter Siragusa, Jack Kehler, J.E. Freeman, Douglas Roberts, Max Perlich, Randall Slavin
Written by: Matthew Tabak
Directed by: Matthew Tabak
MPAA Rating: R for language and some violence
Running Time: 109
Date: 05/14/2000

Auggie Rose (2001)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Trading Places

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Jeff Goldblum stars as whiz insurance salesman John C. Nolan, who walks into a liquor store just before a nervous armed robber shoots and kills the man behind the counter, named Auggie Rose (played briefly by Kim Coates). When no one claims the body, Nolan becomes obsessed with finding out who the man was, what he was like. He finds out that Rose was a recently released prisoner who was about to meet up with a pen pal (Anne Heche) he had met and fallen in love with while in prison. Meaning to tell her what happened, Nolan suddenly changes his mind and decides to become Auggie Rose.

In a way, Auggie Rose (released on video as Beyond Suspicion) resembles Michelangelo Antonioni's great The Passenger (1975), which had Jack Nicholson as a TV reporter in Africa assuming the identity of a dead English arms dealer. Antonioni used the dry, open African landscape as a source of empty space to explore the character's psyche. Whether or not the character was an arms dealer had little to do with Antonioni's poetry; it was the emotions he was after. Auggie Rose writer-director Matthew Tabak tries to go into emotional territory but ends up with a more literal and, I'm sad to say, less intriguing film.

For one thing, it's difficult to completely fathom Nolan's obsession. When Nicholson made his changeover, it seemed to be out of boredom more than anything else -- we didn't know much about his former life. But Nolan seems to be doing pretty well. He's great at his job (we see him enthusiastically sales-pitching a young couple). He makes a lot of money, and he lives with a beautiful woman (Nancy Travis), though they're not married. Though Tabak keeps replaying the liquor store incident over and over from different points of view, it still doesn't seem like quite enough to trigger Nolan's decision. In addition, Tabak throws in a conventional plot device, a jailbird out on bail named Roy Mason (Timothy Olyphant) who offers Nolan (as Auggie) a sweet-sounding robbery job. Mason subsequently begins poking around in Nolan's life and discovers the truth. This subplot has the effect of drawing us away from the emotional aspects of the story and into a run-of-the-mill thriller.

Still, Auggie Rose mostly succeeds, thanks to Tabak's level pacing and Goldblum's rich performance. Goldblum could almost be one of our finest character actors, had his career not yo-yoed around so much. His early performances as a lanky, lovable, gibbering weirdo (Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Buckaroo Banzai) are priceless, and his leading role in David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986) was nothing short of amazing. But then he physically buffed up and walked through conventional Hollywood roles like Jurassic Park and Independence Day and suffered straight-to-video titles (as Auggie Rose would have been, no doubt, if San Francisco's Roxie Cinema had not rescued it). It's good to see him back, but I couldn't help imagining how much better something big like Cast Away would have been with him in the lead.

When I saw The Passenger a couple of years ago during an Antonioni retrospective, I imagined how dreadful the same story might have been if mainstream Hollywood had made it. I'm happy to say that Auggie Rose did not succumb to Hollywood dreadfulness. Though it lacks the Antonioni touch, it has a pretty memorable last line of dialogue, and it's still worth seeing.

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