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Wednesday, June 5, 2002

Tear her down and build her back up again

High Crimes

Rating: * * 1/2
Director: Carl Fanklin
Running time: 115 minutes
Language: English
Opens June 15

What if your wonderful, loving husband and the beautiful, smooth-sailing life you had built with him were to be wrenched away in a single night? What if the man you thought you knew turned out to be a stranger and possibly an enemy?

News photo
Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman in "High Crimes"

Such is the yawn-provoking premise of "High Crimes," in which Ashley Judd plays a heroine deprived suddenly of her nice life and hubby, who must deploy all her physical and emotional resources to recover them. Twentieth Century Fox hopes to repeat the success of "Double Jeopardy" that also had the cards stacked high against Judd -- obviously the studio executives like to see her (a) in anguished tears, but (b) ultimately rising to the challenge of another wildly improbable plot that sees her running around and leaves her panting. What are they, sadists?

Indeed, not only does Judd face adversity in all directions, she gets knocked around, too, marking her delicate features with quite sexy bruises, while sporting low-cut tops and other similarly nifty ensembles. Watching "High Crimes" is to confirm, as if we didn't know, that Hollywood is still very much a boys' town, churning out stories that cater to (a certain side of) boys' sensibilities.

To keep their bases covered, the filmmakers give a nod in the politically correct direction. So Judd is cast as an ace lawyer who has brains -- as well as looks -- to handle the situation when called for. So with all the dials set exactly in the right positions, director Carl Franklin ("Devil in a Blue Dress") forges full-speed ahead. No matter that the story is full of holes, the characters sketchy and the dialogue kind of bumpy -- the executives and marketing people deem that this is gonna sell, boys!

But the worst thing about "High Crimes" is the utter phoniness that prevails throughout. First off, when will movie people realize that high-powered female lawyers do not have a wardrobe to match Naomi Campbell's? Also, said high-powered lawyers don't have any spare time since they are forever on a self-imposed clock and charging clients every 15 minutes. These are people who go through deposition documents while taking showers -- that's how pressed they are.

Now consider the lifestyle of Judd's character, Claire. She kicks off her mornings by taking her body temperature, then rushing off to her contractor husband Tom (James Caviezel) and demanding that they make love ("Now! Here!") so they can have their long-awaited baby. Instead of wearily sighing, "I'm not in the mood," Tom gives her a big, eager smile and complies. After work, they meet for casual dinners and games of pool at some downtown bar. At night, they relax on the terrace of their splendid Marin County house, wrapped in blankets and sipping wine. So ideally matched are they that a weekend afternoon of Christmas shopping during the season can be conducted with graciousness, chuckles, hand-holding tenderness all the way. Such details make "High Crimes" seem more of a caricatured version of Marie Claire Maison than a noir-esque thriller.

Finally, after about 20 minutes of relentless lovey-dovey coupledom in a Martha Stewart setting, the wheels begin to grind. Tom is arrested by the FBI and faces military court martial. Tom's real name is Ron Chapman, a Marine accused of having murdered civilian El Salvadorans 12 years before when his unit raided their village. Claire is devastated for about two minutes, but then her fighting instincts come to the fore. She leaves her law firm, rents a house right near Tom's prison, invites her younger sister Jackie (Amanda Peet) to share quarters and provide moral support. She doesn't trust the young military lawyer Lt. Terrence Embry (Adam Scott) appointed to defend her husband, so she asks around and recruits "the best" there is: Charles Grimes (Morgan Freeman), a sage (albeit alcoholic) legal eagle who's plugged right into army politics.

Thus equipped, Claire launches on the arduous battle to exonerate her husband. In the meantime, the opposite camp is doing their best to break Claire's resolve, first by making freak violent attacks, then sending mysterious informants who say that Tom is actually guilty. However hard she gets roughed up, Claire is equal to the challenge. She uses the media to advertise Tom's innocence, cozies up to the general who ordered the attack on the El Salvador village, hauls Charlie out of bars and shakes him out of his depression.

Claire is so spunky it gets nerve-racking. Can anyone be that positive and sure about herself, career and husband? Can anyone in the same circumstances perfectly mousse up her hair while sporting a black eye and selecting outfits that strike a perfect balance between smart, sleaze and class? It takes a movie like this to bring home the true meaning of the phrase "only in the movies."

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