Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer In Deep

By Susan Ellis

FEBRUARY 23, 1998:  Though the shine has hardly dulled from Wag the Dog, Dustin Hoffman and director Barry Levinson are at it again. This time, however, they go at something completely different – a sci-fi thriller with metaphysical overtones. In many ways, Sphere, based on a novel by Michael Crichton, is the antithesis of Wag the Dog. Where Wag the Dog is sharp, Sphere is very roundabout and coy. And while with Wag the Dog, you know they’re pulling your leg, with Sphere, you get completely jerked around.

In Sphere, Hoffman plays Dr. Norman Goodman, a psychologist who years ago made up a report for the Bush administration detailing how alien life forms should be handled if there should be a need. Part of Norman’s report was a sort of dream team for alien greetings, including a mathematician, a microbiologist, a physicist, and a psychologist. At the time, Norman was only goofing, never figuring that his ideas would be called on, so he just filled in names that were on hand. So when he’s called upon to test his theories, he finds himself face to face with the bratty Ben (Liev Schreiber), the physicist son of a friend, the suicidal Beth (Sharon Stone), whom Norman dumped a while back, and his old friend Harry (Samuel L. Jackson), an unsuspecting mathematician.

The foursome have been rounded up by the government to inspect a site in the depths of the ocean where a large spacecraft has recently been discovered. They are taken to a base set up beside the craft, where they are debriefed. Apparently, they’re told, the craft has been there for 288 years and, what’s more, it’s humming. So then, the psychologist, the physicist, the microbiologist, and the mathematician go on board to scope the place and happen upon a stories-high, vibrating golden sphere. But what exactly the object is or does isn’t instantly deducible. As they try to figure it out, things start to go screwy.

About three-fourths of the way through, as the body count rises and the team becomes mentally undone, Sphere starts to get interesting. The members turn on each other and form alliances and then drop them to accuse the other of something that may or may not be real. Sphere is especially adept at keeping the payoff shrouded, so as to work up a mood of stiff paranoia. But it feels a long time coming.

Maybe it’s the water. There seem to be a lot of movies lately (Titanic, Hard Rain, Alien Resurrection) in which actors are made to splash around. Maybe it’s the studios’ way of making them earn their paychecks. In Sphere, it serves almost as a buffer. Hoffman et al spend a lot of time trying to run or keep from drowning. Yet, for the most of the movie – despite the glowing sphere next door, an attack of killer jellyfish, the rattling of the base – they appear to be a little detached. And if they’re not scared, why should we be?

Their behavior makes sense in the end, which proves to be a warm and fuzzy disappointment that makes you wonder, Why bother? Hoffman’s character is the voice of reason and his performance is steady. His past roles show, however, that he’s best when he has some tic or flaw or any marked characteristic to wrap around. Here he’s given nothing, and it seems like a waste. Jackson, at least, gives his Tarantino character a rest. His Harry is serene, nearly a background presence, with only a few bursts of that big-grinned charisma sneaking its way in. Stone’s character is the emotional one, the one who cries and shakes – basically the girl of the movie. As for Schreiber, he makes some effort to put some force behind his part as the arrogant physicist, but as an indie-film regular, his big-budget roles are the ones most likely to be killed.

Robert Duvall was recently nominated for an Oscar for his acting in The Apostle, a film he also wrote, directed, and produced. The nod is earned, for his Sonny, a.k.a. the Apostle E.F., is one of the best, if not the best, of the year.

Sonny is a deep-down, scream-it-to-the-world, God-loving preacher. For his efforts, he’s got a big church in his Texas town, a light-blue leisure suit, and a nice car with vanity plates. Yet his devotion to the Word hasn’t kept him from cheating on his wife and taking a drink or two. And despite being Pentecostal, Sonny experiences a bit of karma. While out on the road giving witness, he’s struck that he must return home to check on his wife Jessie (Farrah Fawcett). She tells him she’s got another man and plans to leave him and, further, she’s taken the church. Pride clouds Sonny’s judgment and he takes a baseball bat and gives Jessie’s lover a whack.

The crime drives Sonny out of Texas and into Louisiana, specifically the town of Bayou Boutté. He gives up his old identity and takes up a new, more devoted one as the Apostle E.F. In record time, the Apostle gathers new devotees in his new church he names the One Way Road to Heaven. He works swiftly, because he knows it’s just a matter of time before his past and the police catch up with him.

The art in Duvall’s performance lies in its subtlety. Visually, he’s the same man who can cheer a crowd into devotion as he was before he crossed the state line. Rather, the change is palpable – he’s no less devoted but truer. Being in complete control suits Duvall. The dialogue he wrote has a pleasant down-home quality and he peppers the film with small, quirky characters, among them June Carter Cash as his mother and Sister Jewell Jernigan as a devotee. The Apostle is both funny and sweet without being a slice of Southern oddity like Sling Blade (though Billy Bob Thornton does show up). It will make a believer out of you.

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