Malice

The switcheroo
★★★
☆
Released: 
1993
Director: 
Harold Becker
Starring: 
Nicole Kidman, Alex Bladwin, Bull Pullman, Bebe Neuwirth
The Setup: 
Shady dealings between a doctor and the couple he moves in with.
Discussion: 

So I always knew that this movie would end up on this site, and there's one reason for that: This is the only movie I know of that consciously switches genres halfway through. One often thinks "Wouldn't it be interesting to really surprise an audience, and pull them into a romantic comedy, but have it turn into a horror film," or "Start with a mystery, then have it go sci-fi,” (which HAS been done a few times, as in The Prestige). The problem with the idea is that the audience has paid to see one kind of movie, and their presence in the theater means they want THAT movie, and what you switch out with needs to be great enough to make them forget all that. Which is exactly what this film fails to do.

So this is written by Aaron Sorkin, when he was an intriguing name but not yet an established brand, and directed by Harold Becker. We all know that Sorkin is smart, and trying to switch genres mid-film is exactly the kind of ambitious failure a smart person makes. It has an all-star supporting cast including Anne Bancroft, George C. Scott and Bebe Neuwirth. So, I don't know how it's being sold now, but at the time of release it was marketed as a serial killer movie, with the mystery of whether Alec Baldwin would turn out to be the killer. The trailers clearly sold it as a serial killer movie, and that was the height of the post-Silence of the Lambs craze of serial killer movies. And our first scene here is a college girl being abducted by the killer. We then meet Baldwin as Dr. Hill, who just arrived at this university hospital, and is a hotshot and rather an arrogant prick. At the university is Bill Pullman as Andy, and his wife, Nicole Kidman as Tracy. Turns out Hill knew Andy in high school, and before you know it, he's moving in to the vacant room upstairs, and causing discomfort with Tracy, who is clearly attracted / repulsed by him.

There's a lot of tension as Hill keeps his friends up nights with his loud F. Tracy has made it apparent that she wants a baby, but has some medical issue which sometimes results in her doubled over, reaching desperately for pills. A student comes in and--wait, is that Gwenyth? It sure is, Gwenyth Paltrow from that brief period before she went big. in just a jif, she's the latest victim of the serial killer, and it is revealed that all of the victims came to see Andy at his office, introducing Neuwirth as a detective.

THEN! Tracy has some medical trauma. She goes into surgery--with Hill! He makes a decision to remove a healthy ovary, which is assistants aren't sure is necessary! He asks Andy about it and gets permission, saying it's Tracy or the ovary, and even though Tracy wants a baby more than anything, Andy gives permission to remove the ovary. When she recovers, she's not exactly thrilled about Andy's decision, and says "He took my insides out, and you have him permission." She doesn't seem too happy. She sues Hill for malpractice! Meanwhile, Andy ends up talking to this janitor that lives in the university basement, realizes he's the killer, and beats him. It goes by so quickly you may not realize that THAT was the resolution to our serial killer mystery.

And then--GENRE SWITCH!

SPOILERS > > >
Andy finds out that Tracy was pregnant! And guess what--Andy is sterile! The baby is... Dr. Hill's! Turns out Tracy and Hill were in on it from the start, the whole thing was arranged so that she could sue him in a phony malpractice suit, he could be forced out and retire like he wanted to do anyway, and they could run off and live happily ever after in their cliffside cottage which allows for several shots of this house above atmospheric crashing surf. It's around now that you realize the genre has changed on you, and that what you thought was a serial killer film is now a noir, complete with Tracy as femme fatale.

Andy meets Tracy and tells her that he knows what she was up to, and he can prove it, unless he gets one-third of the spoils. She doesn't take this kindly. It's fun to see Kidman turn into a ruthless rage monster, but one can't fully get into it because you're still reeling from the switcheroo and trying to figure out what's going on in this movie. In short order she blows Hill away--she don't need him no more--and schemes to kill Andy's witness and get away clean, leaving Andy in the dust.

Turns out the witness is the deaf ten-year-old boy next door, and Tracy comes in to kill the tyke, evidence of what a nasty monster she is, but she falls into Andy's trap, and is arrested. There's what would be a satisfying moment when she realizes that Andy wasn't the sap she thought he was, but... it doesn't quite work because you're still trying to figure out what's happening in this movie, and what about the serial killer?
< < < SPOILERS END

So I find it a very interesting experiment that doesn't work. Part of this is because--if you saw this when released--the marketing for the movie explicitly sold it as a serial killer film. So what you came to see is a serial killer film, and if it's going to change into something else, well, that's not what you were promised, and not what you paid to see.

The other fatal flaw, even if you're coming to this movie without having seen trailers--is that it's not really clear that the serial killer thread is wrapped up, so you spend the last half of the movie, when you should have switched gears, unable to get into what's happening because you're saying "But wait--what about the serial killer?" I know it may seem obvious to writer Sorkin that the serial killer part was resolved, but if you want people to know that and be able to switch gears, you have to REALLY hit them over the head. Everyone has to be ABSOLUTELY CLEAR that the serial killer is wrapped up, and you're working against audience expectations--more rigid at the time, before the commonality of Sixth Sense-esque surprises--that we're still in the middle of the movie, so there must be more serial killer stuff coming up. In fact, what everyone is expecting, based on the "surprises" of other serial killer films, is that the guy Andy caught is not actually the killer, and we're going to realize it's someone else.

So the audience is lost, and can't get into anything in the second half, because they're still engaged with the serial killer stuff, so everything else just seems confusing and irrelevant. And, I might add--an irritating distraction. That's what I recall most from seeing this movie the first time, is just simple irritation. And given how quickly this movie sank, I think I wasn't the only one. But still, it was an ambitious idea, and it reveals what one would have to do to make it work... or at least make a better attempt.

Should you watch it: 

Eh, you could. Or you could not. Probably the latter.