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Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2003

Campus 'thriller' fails to grade



Abandon

Rating: * * (out of 5)
Director: Stephen Gaghan
Running time: 99 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Most of what you need to know about "Abandon" is condensed into the title. Actually, I've a sneaking suspicion that the title was shortened from something along the lines of: "Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter the Theater" (and indeed, there are references to Dante's "Inferno" throughout). There's an ominous tone to the proceedings almost when the film begins, as you start to sense a less-than-thrilling movie experience awaits. All this is probably what led to the Japanese distributors to change the title from "Abandon" to "Katie" -- the first name of the leading lady (Katie Holmes) and her role (Katie Burke).

News photo
Katie Holmes in "Abandon"

I don't know how Holmes (star of the TV series "Dawson Creek" and American teen-idol extraordinaire) would take this, but my guess is she'd rather not have her name crowning this mess, a movie that a pal of mine would describe as "a biggie floppie."

"Abandon" marks screenwriter Stephen Gaghan's directorial debut (he won an Oscar for "Traffic"). Though the fact that this is his first time should excuse a lot of things, "Abandon" is so mean-spirited that you just don't feel like cutting the guy any slack. The story has so many loose ends strewn around like dirty socks in a college dorm; the editing lacks coherency to the point of chaos; and most damaging of all, Gaghan fails to elicit any spark or credibility from his leading actors -- not just from Katie Holmes, whose loveability takes a rapid nosedive, but also from notables such as Benjamin Bratt ("Traffic"). To make matters worse, Gaghan goes for the kind of greenish lighting that obscures all the finer points of a frame while making the characters look like they've just dined on bad oysters.

This is a college-campus thriller, or as Gaghan described it at a U.S. news conference, a story of the extreme pressure that assails college seniors. Katie is a finance major at a prestigious university and as graduation approaches she finds herself increasingly fretful about her unfinished thesis, completion of courses and getting the right job. All this, even though Katie is known for her brains as well as her alluring good looks -- confirmed by the young executive who recruits her for his New York consulting firm and later pops round with tickets for a basketball game. Still, Katie's blues persist and when the police reopen an investigation into the whereabouts of her missing boyfriend, she sinks into severe depression.

This boyfriend, Embry (Charlie Hunnam), was the campus' charismatic poet/artist/composer/rich-boy. You'd think such a guy would stick around for his adoring crowd but two years before he disappeared after a stage performance and has not been heard from since. Katie had only just begun to recover from his absence when a townie cop named Wade Handler (Benjamin Bratt) starts asking questions. Strangely, as soon as Wade appears on the scene Katie begins to catch glimpses of Embry wandering around their old stomping grounds. Then someone tries to break into her dorm room and stalks her in the library. Afraid, Katie turns to Wade for emotional support and he in turn can't help being drawn to the beautiful and vulnerable college gal.

Two things about Katie may strike you as odd: If she's so bright and beautiful, how come Embry felt the need to disappear? And if Wade is so crazy about her why does he always look as though he can't wait to get home and open a beer? The screenplay keeps insisting on her near-fatal power over men (someone or other is always rhapsodizing about her beauty, etc.), but it doesn't take very long to figure that Katie is actually cold, calculating and sports an ego the size of a 14-wheeler.

In a job interview, she venomously refers to a former high-school counselor as "a traitor" because this counselor tried to send her to a local junior college instead of the swank university that she now attends. Her would-be employers are duly impressed, but could such self-absorption really be an asset in the job market? The gap between Katie's image as articulated by others and Katie as she really is fails to be compelling, largely because Gaghan's narrative is loose and sloppy, scattered with distracting red herrings. In a film that's supposedly all about Katie, she's just not very interesting to watch.

At least the supporting actors turn in better performances than the leads, namely Melanie Lynskey playing a freakish library worker known as Mousey Julie. Julie's take on how men feel about Katie is dead-on: "Pea-brain thinks she needs saving. Pea-brain thinks he's the one to save her." In this one line she manages to convey jealousy, contempt, humor and a deliberate cattiness designed to (hopefully) call attention to herself. In the whiny, anemic world of " Abandon," Julie comes off as the only person with warm blood running through her veins instead of slush.



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