Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Palmetto D'Or

By Ray Pride

FEBRUARY 23, 1998:  The classic noir hero has always been a knucklehead, a passive type waiting for the femme who's fatale. The neo-noir hero, on the other hand, seems to have just gotten dumber and dumber since the days of "Body Heat." And smart directors seem attracted to these sad sack protagonists: perhaps only keen intelligence can relish how effortlessly the well-meaning but ill-prepared plumb still greater depths of stupidity. Going for a real u-turn from his highbrow literary adaptations, German director Volker Schlondorff -- known for "Death of a Salesman," with Dustin Hoffman; Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale"; and Gunter Grass' "The Tin Drum" -- comes up with "Palmetto," based on the 1950s James Hadley Chase paperback with a proto-neo-noir pulp title, "Just Another Sucker."

Graham Greene alternated weighty, thoughtful books with brisk thrillers he called "entertainments." "Palmetto," a modest variation on neo-noir, surely fits as an "entertainment" within Schlondorff's body of work. Getting out from behind his desk at the reunited Germany's Babelsberg studio complex (where, among many other movies, Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" was shot), Schlondorff wallows in the humid Florida noir. While John Dahl is the king of movies with supremely dense protagonists (think of the hapless males in "Red Rock West" and "The Last Seduction"), Schlondorff and "Something Wild" screenwriter E. Max Frye have the good fortune of Woody Harrelson -- a better and better actor in his every role -- incarnating their dogged yet fuzzy-minded protagonist.

"Nothing came out that wasn't bitter and cynical," his defrocked journalist, Harry, voice-overs from his prison cell, intending to change his life, intending to relocate in Miami, never to return to the sleepy burg of Palmetto, when he's told that a state's witness has cleared his name. But neo-noir is a mix of nightmare repetition and bone-headed haplessness, which Harry partakes of like whiskey and chasers. Palmetto, as you would well expect, no, demand, turns out to be the damp, mildew-reeking 1950s Florida of a subtropical fever dream. Harry's bitter: he was framed, he's lost two years of his life, and now no one will hire him. Old girlfriend Gina Gershon gives him support both moral and carnal, but he's quickly approached by one Rhea Malroux (played by Elisabeth Shue as if she thought she were Gina Gershon), who's married to a dying older man. Shue's enjoyably cartoony, struggling to be sexy and cocky instead of the lithe soccer-playing cutie-pie she embodied in early roles. Shue's striving for day-long swank, bullet-bra'ed, sleek-skirted and kittening her voice as she rolls her liquid brown eyes. Even after a deuce in prison, Harry's gotta know this girl is pushing it too hard. The implausibilities are compounded when Rhea corrals Harry into a faked kidnapping of young stepdaughter Odette, played by the wry, preternaturally assured Chloe Sevigny.

Harry Barber is a variation of the classic detective in this type of tale, a journalist playing detective without a license, whose non-paying client is the truth. He tries to be a hard-boiled type, but he's got it all wrong, filling his days with dreams of being good, while living a nightmare of recurring screw-ups that, naturally, add up to big-time trouble. In over his head from the first scene, Harry just can't get it right, like most real-life crooks. To add to his knack for moral equivocation, Harry suffers the damnation of being sought sexually by these three very attractive women. Even if you don't believe the shifts in motivation the script puts Harry through, Harrelson adds a lot of thunks, thuds and inopportune coughing, walking into pillars, knocking into walls, physicalizing Harry's daze at every chance. Schlondorff's direction is restrained, the film's languorous pace playing against the frisky chat of Frye's script. But the cheeky dialogue and strutting acting are of a piece with the success that cinematographer Thomas Kloss and production designer Claire Jenora Bowin have in capturing a flushed Floridian rut-swelter. When stepdaughter Odette is putting the make on Harry in a seedy bungalow, the lighting and framing captures not just the tawny flex of Sevigny's legs, but the bristling blonde of down on her inner thigh as well.

When all the complications have clattered their way to story's end, Harrelson's performance manages to keep you from thinking, "Jeez, how implausible can a story be," but instead, "How dumb would I be in such a predicament?" After a quiet stretch in the middle, "Palmetto"'s last half hour bursts with clever reversals in forestalling the inevitable cataclysm, and while the whole doesn't fully satisfy, there are impudent moments to spare.

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