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Woody Harrelson's dopey antics can't save an even dopier "Palmetto."

By Zak Weisfeld

MARCH 2, 1998:  Here's the question: Do people making a bad movie know that it's bad when they're making it? Can the actors tell that the lines they're struggling through are badly written, and that they're speaking them badly? Do directors watch scene after scene, changing the lighting, the camera angles, bringing in the rain machine, knowing all the while that the movie they're committing their life to is a big fat turd? And if they know this, and continue on anyway, continue on and actually finish the misbegotten thing and then release it upon the unsuspecting (dare I say, innocent) world, do they feel shame? And can they be held accountable?

I've spoken with my attorney about this last matter, and he's assured me that unless I can prove more damages than a wasted afternoon and a few lost dollars, it's probably not worth pursuing the case. For this advice he charged me the price of a budget of a small independent film.

But, while I may have no legal recourse against Castle Rock, Sony Pictures, and the rest of that claw-fingered cabal out drowning on the coast, I do at least have the privilege of slandering, mercilessly, the names of all those responsible for the movie they call Palmetto.

On the surface, Palmetto has the makings of a decent enough tropical noir thriller: a sweaty location, some kidnapping, some murder, some double crossing, and a lot of sweaty stars. It's a simple enough premise—a reporter, Harry Barber, wrongly imprisoned, is released from jail. A femme fatale, Rhea Malroux, convinces him to help in her fake kidnapping plot to extort $500,000 from her rich husband. Things go wrong, people get killed, etc. etc.

This should have been my first warning sign. A fake kidnapping plot? How many of these are they going to make this year? Someone in Hollywood must have done focus group testing and discovered a deep-seated—and deeply unmet—desire among American moviegoers to see fake kidnapping plots gone wrong. One of them, Fargo, was even good. But the rest, well, suffice to say they didn't meet with guru approval. But I ignored my instincts and went bravely into the theater (plus it was either see Palmetto, that might suck, or see Senseless, which obviously did) to see what could be seen.

What I saw was a movie stunning in its failure to make decent use of any of its promising elements. The sweaty, swampy, sexy town of Palmetto, in which the story is set, is hardly ever seen. There's little sense of place or atmosphere, which makes it tough to pull off a noirish film.

This lack of atmosphere puts the entire weight of Palmetto squarely on the backs of its stars, and with its muddled script and hardly snappy dialogue, it's a heavy load to bear. What's strange is that the cast almost seems up for the job. All have been in decent films and done solid—if not brilliant—work. But whatever abilities they have are well hidden on Palmetto.

Harrelson, who was fine in Larry Flynt; looks like he's struggling to stay awake as Harry Barber, the journalist gone bad. He delivers his lines with the forced intensity of a high school drama Hamlet and then looks as though he has no idea what he just said. His few entertaining moments come when he resorts to bumbling slapstick, banging into posts or burning off his eyelid.

Even worse is Gina Gershon, who's completely wasted. As the girlfriend, she opens the movie with some strong licking but then reverts to an implausible niceness until she almost vanishes right before your eyes. I believe her sole line in Palmetto is, "Oh, Harry."

But perhaps the most pathetic is Elisabeth Shue, who plays Rhea Malroux, the ultimate femme fatale. Her performance is so mannered, so over the top, that she strains credulity even farther than her dress. In the final scene, Shue hits the staircase looking like a coked-up Liza Minelli, the spotlight giving her painful overacting the brittle quality of an overpriced drag show.

While it may seem plausible to blame the stars for allowing themselves to carry on like this, the true criminal in these proceedings is the director, the aptly named Volker Schlondorff. He's supposedly in charge of all of this. He's supposed to DIRECT. But somehow he made a thriller with no thrill, sucked the sensuality out of a sweaty Shue, and the pacing out of Palmetto. So even though I can't go after the studios, perhaps my lawyer can think of something to lay on Volker.

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