On The Devil’s Advocate

The Devil’s Advocate, starring Keanu Reeves (Point Break, The Matrix trilogy, Speed, My Own Private Idaho) can be considered “a hellva an entertaining film. A classic? No. Either of their top pictures? No.” According to the A.V. Club‘s “The New Cult Canon: The Devil’s Advocate“:

Diaboli virtus in lumbis est. Diaboli virtus in lumbis est. The virtue of the devil is in his loins.”

And now Camp Month brings us to The Devil’s Advocate—or, as I’d like to call it, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The “Hoo-ah” Al Pacino. When Pacino took the Best Actor Oscar for Scent Of A Woman, besting the likes of Denzel Washington in Malcolm X and Stephen Rea in The Crying Game, it felt ironically like one of the great actors of his generation had been lost to us. Gone was the quiet, tortured, soulful introspection of Pacino’s work in classics like The Godfather Part II and Serpico. Instead, we received a preening scenery-chewer whose performances were all surface theatricality, with little character underneath. At the time, he seemed to me a husk of his former self, lazily coasting on the authority of his voice and his puffed-up reputation.

Now I’m here to tell you I was wrong, on a number of levels. Not about Scent Of A Woman, which is still dismal and shouldn’t have won Pacino his sole Oscar, but about Pacino’s “Hoo-ah” performances, which started well before Scent came along (in …And Justice For All and future NCC entry Scarface, for starters) and can be accomplished and riveting under the right circumstances. After I re-watched it on cable a few years ago, Pacino’s flamboyant turn in The Devil’s Advocaterecalibrated my thinking on some of his late-period performances. Granted, Pacino has been guilty of grotesque self-parody on more than one occasion—Any Given Sunday and Two For The Money leap immediately to mind—but he also has presence, that ineffable quality that comes through in his face, his gruff vocal timbre, and his way of commanding the frame. Countless actors have played Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross, but who else could play him with that kind of authority? Ditto Michael Corleone in The Godfather, or Tony Montana in Scarface.

Pacino’s work in The Devil’s Advocate gives me an opportunity to talk about camp performances, which aren’t quite synonymous with “hammy” or “over-the-top.” Where you’d refer to, say, Rod Steiger or Charlton Heston as two of cinema’s most glistening, honey-glazed hams, their indulgences stop short of camp because they lack a necessary playfulness. “Frivolity” and “excess” were the words used in Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes On Camp,” and they should apply to more than just the gay camp of Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Marlene Dietrich. Supplied with an all-you-can-eat buffet of juicy monologues, particularly in the fevered final act, Pacino gives a performance that isn’t over the top so much as sublimely florid. Or, for lack of a better word, devilish.

With a catlike grin and a gleam in his eye, Pacino plays John Milton, head of the all-powerful New York City law firm of Lucifer, Beelzebub, and Pazuzu. In a broad sense, Milton’s operation runs a lot like the one in John Grisham’s The Firm: It represents elite clients, it’s shady enough to draw attention from the Feds, its attorneys engage in all-night shredding sessions, it squelches dissent with extreme prejudice, and once hotshot young lawyers are recruited into its ranks, they don’t have the option of leaving. One of those hotshot lawyers is Keanu Reeves, an unscrupulous Southern defense attorney who’s never lost a case, which has led to many guilty clients getting exonerated. His latest case finds him obliterating a quivering young girl on the witness stand whom he knows is telling the truth about getting molested by his client, a sweaty-palmed math teacher.

Reeves’ heroics in the Gainesville courts catch the attention of Milton’s firm, which could use another morally vacant slickster to bolster its growing criminal-defense operation. Against his Bible-thumping mother’s wishes, Reeves and his wife, Charlize Theron are lured to the modern-day Babylon of New York City, where they’ve given the royal treatment and tucked away in an upscaleRosemary’s Baby apartment. Reeves immediately dives into exonerating the firm’s wealthy crooks, including a goat-slaughtering voodoo practitioner and an unctuous executive accused of a sloppy triple murder. That leaves poor Theron all alone to suffer the devil’s escalating torments, which start with horrifying hallucinations that carry portents about her plans to have a baby, and build to visions of fake-breasted housewives morphing into demons.

At 143 minutes, The Devil’s Advocate takes more time than necessary to work itself into a melodramatic lather—though once it does in the final third, there are few Hollywood films in recent years that have gone so far out on a limb. As a morality tale, it’s blunt by design and disappointingly pedestrian in the beginning, when Reeves and his questionable Southern accent overplay the lawyerly smarm. (Aside: Why are criminal-defense attorneys always nearest to Satan in our culture? Everyone deserves a fair trial and adequate representation, and if they didn’t, our justice system would collapse. Reeves has every reason to be proud of his perfect record, so long as he’s conducted himself ethically—which, of course, he doesn’t at the end of the film.) And even once Pacino enters the picture, he offers the soft-sell temptations of money and stature over the Showcase Showdown of evil benefits that Reeves is presented with in the finale.

I’m tempted to cut straight to the climax and skip over the fitfully entertaining two hours that precede it, but a few notes first: Though Reeves’ accent is his shakiest this side of Bram Stoker’s Dracula: Dead And Loving It, he’s still the right choice for the part—pretty, naïve, and not forceful enough to usurp Pacino, who needs an actor he can bully around. As for Charlize Theron, she certainly gives a lot of performance, but compared to Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby or Catherine Denueve in Repulsion, all that exerted energy yields little return. A few interior-decorating headaches, and her descent into madness and catatonia suddenly spirals out of control. Ultimately, this movie belongs to Pacino, aided by the maelstrom of gothic effects and colorful philosophizing whipped up by director Taylor Hackford and his screenwriters, Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy.

Though there are a handful of clever moments along the way—I particularly like the cameos by Alfonse D’Amato and Don King, two shameless self-promoters who must not have considered the context of their appearances—The Devil’s Advocatesaves most of its rhetorical fireworks for the end. And that’s where Pacino, now outed as the devil incarnate, gets to prance around a giant, ornate stage, letting wicked words swish around his mouth before spitting them back in Reeves’ general direction. In the courtroom of Reeves’ soul, Pacino lays out a devastating closing argument. First, he notes that Reeves’ suffering has come as a result of hischoices—his vanity in keeping up his winning streak at all costs, his decision to put off caring for his sick wife; “I’m not the puppeteer,” Pacino says. “I only set the stage. You pull the strings.”

Here’s the funny thing about that speech: I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking, “Hey, the devil makes some cogent points.” Throughout the film, Pacino’s diablo offers up all the expected temptations—wealth, sex, power, endless indulgence—but here, the hook goes deeper, because what he’s ultimately offering is freedom. And what greater freedom could there be than embracing the instincts that God—the sadist, the man in the Ivory Tower, the “absentee landlord”—has gifted Man, only to shut him down in the Garden Of Eden? Under the devil’s logic, it’s counterintuitive not only to deny ourselves the things we desire, but to consider worshiping God in the first place. Here’s the kicker of the monologue:

I’ve been here on the ground with my nose in it since the whole thing began. I’ve nurtured every sensation man’s been inspired to have. I cared about what he wanted, and I never judged him. Why? Because I never rejected him. In spite of all his imperfections, I’m a fan of man! I’m a humanist. Maybe the last humanist.

Again, very persuasive. And not unlike the “last temptation” in The Last Temptation Of Christ, in which Jesus is treated with warmth and compassion, and given nothing more outrageous than the promise of an ordinary life—a wife, a child, a thatch-roofed hut of his own. Here, Satan offers Connie Nielsen on a slab, but the sales pitch is the same: God is what we might aspire to, but the Devil is what we are, and there’s no use fighting it. Sure, love may be out of the question, but as Pacino says, in maybe my favorite line in the film, “Overrated. Biochemically, no different from eating large quantities of chocolate.” This devil, a down-to-earth, blue-collar guy, willing to ride the subway with the rest of us, is a more honest pander than the politician who walks around in jeans and a hardhat. There’s no need for sacrifice or subjugation with him; he’s a “fan of man!” and will take you as you are. Honestly, if Reeves’ wife weren’t destroyed in the bargain, he would have few reasons not to take the deal.

How many other major-studio movies have had the guts to stage the battle of ideas between good and evil in such a stark fashion? None that I can recall. But mostly, The Devil’s Advocate is The Al Pacino Show, a camp romp through his full range of gesticulation and verbal gymnastics. He must be the most charismatic devil ever put on film, someone equally capable of making holy water boil and staying in touch with when, precisely, a woman is ovulating. It seems like the only camp performances that ever get appreciated over time are gay camp, so consider this entry a shot across the bow. Hoo-ah!

Finally, according to io9‘s article, “Did You Forget How Insane The Devil’s Advocate Was?“:

I am here to testify that if you’ve only witnessed The Devil’s Advocate on TNT, your soul is unclean. Until you have witnessed the holy incestuous orgies and drunk of the sacred monologue spittle of Al Pacino, you will not be saved from the mundaneness of modern-day cinema. Come with me and I will make you a believer.

This 1997 picture succeeds for so many reasons, and not just because of Pacino’s nomination-worthy ranting and habitual mid-dialogue lip-licking. The rest of the cast is fantastic as well. And oh my god, the script.

The movie is loosely based on the novel of the same name by Andrew Neiderman. Super loosely — from the 10 minutes I spent skimming the original work, main character Kevin actually kills the devil in the end, not himself (spoilers!) and is promptly convicted of murder and sent to jail forever. But it’s the language that sets this film apart, the glorious, over-the-top, no-one-talks-like-that-but-you-buy-what-the-devil-is-selling one-liners. For example: “Guilt is like a bag of fuckin’ bricks. All ya gotta do is set it down.” That’s 100% totally something you could do… but you probably shouldn’t, if you don’t want to become a complete soulless monster.

Part of me feels like, when the writers sat down to put pen to paper, they weren’t interested in the plot so much as seeing exactly how many lines they could provide Pacino so he could slowly crescendo into a raving, red-faced Dark Lord, but still convince the audience that they want to go to boxing matches with him and watch him get blowies under a restaurant table (a real scene that happens in this movie). Every line he has is a gem — even the one about how he once had sex with a woman and she was shocked it was him, because look at him. And that’s power:

“There’s this beautiful girl just fucked me forty ways from Sunday… we’re done, she’s walking to the bathroom, she’s trying to walk, she turns… she looks… it’s me. Not the Trojan army just fucked her. Little ol’ me. She has this look on her face like: “How the hell did that happen?”

Each line has a horrible, horrible lesson that you really want to learn.

Then there’s the cast — all great, all over the top, all pretty perfect, especially Keanu Reeves.

Keanu plays Kevin Lomax, the ego-driven defense attorney from Gainesville, Florida, who, get this, has NEVER LOST A CASE. That fact drives this Southern-accented, khaki-suited maniac to make a series of truly bad judgment calls. In fact, the film opens in court with Kevin shaming the victim of a pedophile (his client) to tears just so he doesn’t have a mark on his perfect record. (This, despite Kevin’s knowledge that his client is garbage. No seriously, his client mimes fingering the table in front of Kevin while his victim rehashes her horrors. It’s dry-heave-worthy).

Kevin’s victory is consecrated with shots and a night of sinful pelvic dancing with his gorgeous wife Mary Ann Lomax (played by Charlize Theron). This will be the last time you see this character happy (this will also be the last time you see Keanu’s ’90s wire-framed glasses).

Even though The Devil’s Advocate was advertised with copious pictures of Keanu and Pacino “Daddy and Me”-style, the real heart of this movie is all Theron. She is put through the fucking wringer through the whole movie and after my 5th viewing this week, I can honestly say that the shit that happens to her would have driven me completely insane as well. But more on that later.

Whilst Gainesville is celebratin’ its moral degradation, the husband and wife are approached with an offer they can’t refuse: a big New York City law firm wants Kevin to come work them them. First class tickets (naturally) are presented and away they go to meet devil Al Pacino. This is not a spoiler because the movie stars Al Pacino and is called The Devil’s Advocate. You don’t cast Pacino in a devil movie and not make him the devil. That’s just science.

Also, if there was any doubt as to Pacino’s character’s true identity, he is helpfully named John Milton, after the author of Paradise Lost.

So the two country mice head to the big city and right into the arms of the devil, because money is awesome.

This is where things start to get pretty great for Kevin and not-so-great for Mary Ann. Most folks remember the big bombastic finale of The Devil’s Advocate (and it is indeed a collection of what-the-fuckery with a heaping helping of breasts and unexpected suicide). However, the most insidious moments of evil aren’t the bathed-in-blood offerings to Satan. No, it’s watching Mary Ann get mean girl-ed by her new “friends” to the point of actual insanity.

Take this scene, for instance. The anxiety of decorating a new home, whilst impressing her new friends whom she frankly doesn’t even care about, makes my skin crawl.

And it doesn’t stop: the incessant needling, the brutal off-handed quips chip away at Mary Anne’s state of mind.

The next thing you know, Mary Ann’s practically sitting in the lap of the devil. And what does he tell her? YOU SHOULD CUT YOUR HAIR.

This is maniacal. Yeah, yeah, it’s all surface, but if you’ve ever been on the bad end of a rash hair decision, you know it’s enough to bring out the worst in us all. Like calling your mom even though you’re a grown-ass 33-year-old human woman, and taking selfies of the back of your head while crying because, “Who even is this person anymore?” This is truly dark evil and it made me squirm to watch her play into their hands so easily.

So it’s only a matter of time (and one bad haircut) before Mary Ann teeters over the edge. All her bitchy friends have to do is suggest she get her breasts done, while demon-smiling.

Truly, the road to Hell is paved with catty bitches.

Mary Ann goes absolutely nuts and winds up naked in a church accusing Milton of raping her. This is most likely the scene you forget because you watched this movie on basic cable. The reveal is horrible: Mary Ann is found covered head to toe in cuts and bruises. It’s brutal. Obviously, no one believes her but instead tell her that maybe she should comb her hair and be pretty. And in a strange tribute to the sin that is vanity, she winds up slicing her own neck with a shattered handheld mirror.

Before things go tits up for Kevin (which is an apt expression for this movie, because it has so much topless female nudity in it; Pacino/Satan even has a moving wall in his office to supply the room with even more boobs, should there be a need for more them. Apparently there’s always a need), he finds success getting off a murderer, played by Craig T. Nelson. It’s a case that Kevin believes to be fairly innocuous, until it all comes down to a question of the alleged mistress knowing if the person of interest was circumcised or not. She didn’t, thus proving her story and his alibi to be a big fat fucking lie. OF COURSE this movie ends the big case on a dick joke.

Eventually, the curtain pulls back and the devil shows his face.

Cue the monologing!

While I insist that Mary Ann’s degradation is truly the heart of this movie’s evil, the end is aaaall Pacino.

Kevin meets Satan (who naturally turns out to be his father) in his office. Satan shows up wearing a pinstripe suit, dirty tuxedo shirt, a waistcoat made from a rug, and a necklace. And then he gets to chewing up the scenery.

In the long history of scenery chewing, this is truly the greatest scene ever constructed. There are no fewer than 17 lines (I counted “GOD is an ABSENTEE LANDLAWD” and so forth) that could all be cross-stitched and framed on my wall. But the best part is when Satan decides to lay into GOD with his arbitrary rules.

In reality, none of his crazy banter really makes sense, but it’s made to be consumed with handfuls of popcorn. And it is delicious. So the monologue continues, revealing that the hot red head Kevin’s been eyeing in the law firm is actually his own half sister. And now Pacino/Satan wants them to make him a baby. She’s really into it. Pacino/Satan is really into it. How else does the sister try and get Keanu in the mood, but by posing like the crucifixion as a goof.

We got jokes.

After she strikes this pose, she says, “Who am I?” Oh god, it’s all just spectacle and horror and insanity until Kevin stops it all by shooting himself in the head, while smiling. He pulls the trigger, the side of his head explodes and he’s still smiling. And the movie shows it all. It’s deeply troubling. BUT WAIT IT’S NOT DONE.

After this absurdity Pacino/Devil screams, briefly turns into a monster and lights his entire apartment on fire with his rage while simultaneously blasting his daughter with his demon breadth causing her to shrivel up into a mummy. BUT WAIT THAT’S NOT ALL.

Seeing that he just breadth-killed his daughter he retaliates by morphing into an angel with the face of Keanu.

End Scene.

Of course, in the end, it all Groundhog’s Day-s itself and we’re back in the Floridian courtroom ready to get the pedophile off the hook. But Kevin’s learned his lesson now, and he walks away, ending the movie with his first courtroom loss. But he really didn’t learn his lesson, ’cause you know vanity is definitely the devil’s favorite sin.

The Devil’s Advocate is fantastic. It’s got more bombastic and grandious filibustering-type dialogue than anything we’ve seen in ages. But hell, Pacino pulls the lines off. And Keanu is just doe-eyed enough to play dumb while his wife is screaming that a baby ripped out her ovaries — and yet smart enough that you kind of think he may be a POS. The movie is unafraid to be silly with spectacle, and it worked hard to earn its gigantic reveal. Pacino spends so much time being a clever slime that you almost can’t wait for the truth to come out, because by then you’re kind of thinking about buying what he’s selling.

And let’s be real, if you’re going to make a movie about the devil being the head of a powerful law firm in New York, then you can’t really be afraid of things like nudity, sex, depraved acts, and improbably moving walls that are also possibly art but maybe also all the souls Pacino eats to stay up on his devil game. The Devil’s Advocate, a classic.

That is all, Happy Easter! Cue the obligatory “Paint it Black” song that runs through the credits because obviously.

According to Roger Ebert:

Most movies about lawyers involve selling your soul to the devil, but “Devil’s Advocate” is the first in which the devil gets more dialogue than the lawyers. The movie chronicles the descent of Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves), a small-time legal star from Florida, into the depths of the New York big time. Recruited by a powerful Manhattan law firm, he finds himself defending goat-killers and real estate tycoons for a boss named John Milton, who offers him a paradise found.

Milton (Al Pacino) is the devil. That is a secret reserved for the second hour of the film, although the title hints it, the posters and TV commercials reveal it, and by the time it arrives Lomax is the only character who hasn’t suspected. Charming, persuasive, with a wise little cackle, Milton sends a recruiter to Florida, where Lomax is an undefeated master of picking juries that do not convict. He wants the young man to join his team, and tempts him not on a mountain top but on a rooftop.

The scene of the first meeting between Milton and Lomax, on a skyscraper roof, scores a stunning visual impact. The production designer, Bruno Rubeo, has created a spectacular effect: A water garden in the sky, with pool surfaces spilling over the edges of the building, so that water and sky seem to meet without any architectural separation. The two men walk perilously close to the edge, as the director, Taylor Hackford, plays with vertigo to suggest that Lomax is being offered all of Manhattan at his feet–and also the possibility of a great and sudden fall.

The young lawyer is impressed. So, at first, is his wife Mary Ann (Charlize Theron), who can’t believe it when Milton offers them a three-bedroom apartment in a luxurious Fifth Avenue co-op. Only Lomax’s Bible-quoting mother (Judith Ivey) has her doubts, quoting scripture about Sodom, Gomorra and other keywords that pop into the mind when Manhattan is mentioned. Her advice, indeed, seems increasingly sound as the film progresses.

Lomax becomes obsessed with his job, ignoring his wife and drawing closer to a sexy woman at the office (Connie Nielsen). And the wife, obsessed with having a baby, begins to come apart. She has the film’s first supernatural vision, when she sees a demon materialize in the face and body of a helpful neighbor (Tamara Tunie), and soon she’s begging to go back to Gainesville.

The satanic character is played by Pacino with relish bordering on glee. Reeves in contrast is sober and serious–the straight man. That’s the correct choice for his role, but it leaves Pacino with many of the best lines (“I’m maybe the last humanist. The 20th century was entirely mine. I’m perking!”) “Devil’s Advocate” is neither fish nor fowl: It is not a serious film about its subject, nor is it quite a dark comedy, despite some of Pacino’s good lines. The epilogue, indeed, cheats in a way I thought had been left behind in grade school. And yet there are splendid moments.

I liked the way Hackford used speeded-up photography, as in “Koyaanisqatsi,” to indicate the passage of time. The way Milton’s office looks like Satan’s might look if he had a great designer. The nice little throwaways as when the goat killer (Delroy Lindo) apparently causes the prosecutor to have a coughing fit. The casting is good in small roles, including Heather Matarazzo, from “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” as the victim in an early courtroom scene. But the movie never fully engaged me; my mind raced ahead of the plot, and the John Grisham stuff clashed with the Exorcist stuff. Still, I enjoyed Pacino. Looking less deeply wrinkled than of late, his face smooth with Satanic self-contentment, he relishes the details, such as that Milton likes to stand in front of fires and always travels by subway. The phantasmagorical final confrontation between the two men, set to the Sinatra version of “It Happened in Monterey,” ranges from melodrama to camp (“You’re the anti-Christ!” “Whatever.”) It includes an extraordinary special effect of a marble bas relief that comes to life and melts into a licentious orgy. If the whole film were as good as its production design, we’d really have something here.


3 thoughts on “On The Devil’s Advocate

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