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Weekly Alibi Curiouser and Curiouser

By Devin D. O'Leary

FEBRUARY 7, 2000:  Curiosity, as the saying goes, killed the cat. Not that there's anything fundamentally wrong with curiosity, mind you. It's a healthy human trait. It keeps us awake and intrigued and is a primary motivating factor in getting many folks into theaters to see films they know little about. Curiosity is one of the more serious elements at play in upstart Destination Films' new release Eye of the Beholder.

Curious, isn't it, that high-profile UK actor Ewan McGregor chose this labyrinthine little thriller as his follow-up to Star Wars: Episode One -- The Phantom Menace? Since McGregor came to major international attention with his slam-bang portrait of a spirited junkie in Danny Boyle's acclaimed Trainspotting, he's had trouble living up to his own hype. Though most every moviegoer knows his name and face, how many have actually seen his follow-up efforts? Nightwatch, Velvet Goldmine, Little Voice, A Less Ordinary Life, The Serpent's Kiss, Rogue Trader: Do any of these films ring a bell? There are a great many actors who avoid the harsh glare of Hollywood to toil away in the humble murk of indie cinema. Few of these actors, however, seem to have quite the poor luck in choosing scripts that McGregor has demonstrated. Frankly, his first major Hollywood effort (Phantom Menace) didn't exactly reward him with a choice role either (his Obi-Wan Kenobi got to do little more than stand around behind Liam Neeson's robe). Perhaps not so curiously, McGregor has done another not-so-exemplary job in choosing roles with Eye of the Beholder.

In Eye, McGregor plays The Eye, an unnamed British intelligence agent contracted to hunt down a mysterious female blackmailer named Joanna Eris (Ashley Judd). What exactly The Eye is isn't really clear -- is he a spy, a private detective? Who can say? All we know for sure is that he has a seemingly unlimited supply of high-tech surveillance devices and gets his assignments from lesbian songstress k.d. lang (talk about curious).

During the course of his investigation, The Eye realizes that Joanna is more than just a blackmailer -- she's a seductive master of disguise and a serial killer to boot. Instead of turning her in, though, our easily obsessed hero simply shadows her all over the globe, watching her every move and acting as her ever-present guardian angel.

Initially, viewers may be curious (again that word) as to everyone's motivations. Why, for example, is The Eye so enamored with this deadly femme fatale? It's possible that he's in love with her (hey, it's Ashley Judd, after all). It's equally possible, however, that he believes she is his long-lost daughter. Wherever he goes (at least for the first half of the movie) our high-tech voyeur is haunted by the "ghost" of his young daughter who insists that daddy not let this "lost little girl" get out of his sight. Whether The Eye's daughter is dead or merely absent is never definitively delineated. Whatever happened, The Eye blames himself for the loss and is desperate to rectify the error. The concept of Joanna being The Eye's long-lost daughter is interesting but makes little practical sense. Casting McGregor and Judd (both of whom are nearly the same age) renders rather impossible this potentially promising sub-plot.

What about Joanna Eris? Why is she bumping off an unrelated string of male suitors? Are we expected to fear her or feel for her? Eventually it's revealed that daddy abandoned her as a child -- but if this constitutes genuine character motivation, then somebody's been asleep at the screenwriting wheel. Few questions brought up by Eye of the Beholder, it seems, are answered to any measurable satisfaction.

Australian writer/director Stephan Elliott (who struck gold with the internationally successful Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and struck out with the largely unreleased Welcome to Woop Woop) contributes greatly to the film's inconsistent tone and confused storyline. Occasionally surreal, sometimes darkly comic, at times Lifetime movie-of-the week thrilling, Eye of the Beholder is a fractured fable to say the least. Elliott directs with a certain amount of visual flourish, but frequently tosses in some high-handed symbolism in an attempt to seem deep. Images of snowglobes abound, for example. The actual meaning of such fancy-schmancy images is slippery at best.

Despite such Euro-style art house affectations, there remain enough curiosities to keep optimistic viewers committed to Eye of the Beholder. Will The Eye ever actually do anything? Will the script eventually make sense? Will Ashley Judd get naked again?

Curiosity also has a major down side, though. Aside from its aforementioned use as a feline exterminator, curiosity has a short shelf life. People will remain curious for only a brief period of time before their unresolved inquisitiveness turns to boredom. By about the halfway mark, Eye of the Beholder commits its one insurmountable sin -- tedium. Everywhere that Joanna goes, The Eye is there: London, New York, San Francisco, Las Vegas, back to San Francisco, up to Alaska. At 109 minutes, Eye of the Behold prompts more watch glances than most three-hour opuses, and an initially-intriguing film noir experiment ends up more travelogue than thriller.

... Still curious?

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