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The Life of David Gale   D

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Alan Parker
Writer: Charles Randolph
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney, Gabriel Mann, Matt Craven, Rhona Mitra, Leon Rippy, Jim Beaver.

Review by Rob Vaux

There are few things more depressing than a bad film about an important subject. The Life of David Gale takes it one step further: it's a silly, ludicrous, utterly laughable film about a very important subject. The timing of its release suggests a tentative Oscar campaign that was wisely aborted, making it just another example of Hollywood's artistic pretensions gone awry. The award-friendly cast includes Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, and Laura Linney -- all of whom should have known better -- and the director is Alan Parker, a curious filmmaker whose work runs the gamut from the near-brilliant to the truly dreadful. File this one on the latter end of the scale.

Parker has a penchant for big showy gestures; melodrama is in his blood, and if he has the proper subject matter (such as musicals), he can do terrific things with it. Unfortunately, he also has a recurring desire to tackle enormous topics, which his proclivities inevitably sabotage. Sensitivities become stereotypes, quiet debates become soap opera theatrics. The Life of David Gale is possibly his worst offense in this regard. Its topic is the death penalty, and it endeavors to present a serious, perhaps shocking take on the system that facilitates it. Instead, it delivers a leering, hysterical potboiler, a would-be mystery cloaked in the twaddle of the truly deluded.

It also gives us a glimpse of a Kate Winslet that might have been -- the Bizarro World Kate, who took the big payoff after Titanic and has been making stupid cop thrillers instead of independent fare like Hideous Kinky and Iris. Here, she plays Bitsey Bloom, a high-power New York reporter given the plum assignment of interviewing Death Row inmate David Gale (Spacey) in the days before his execution. Gale was once a respected scholar and a leading voice in the movement to end the death penalty, but a series of scandals and personal crises shatter his reputation... culminating in the murder of a fellow crusader (Linney) for which he is convicted. The details of his slow descent unfold in flashback to Bitsey, along with the expected admonitions of innocence and hints at a conspiracy to frame him. Winslet soon finds herself running around like some ADD-afflicted Nancy Drew, searching for clues and explaining key plot points to us, while Spacey gazes through the prison glass like a forlorn puppy left behind on vacation.

Despite the overheated nature of the story, it's not hard to see what attracted such stars. The Life of David Gale is filled with the kind of histrionic speeches that actors love, giving them a chance to display their chops while presumably speaking out for a higher cause. All of the principles have a couple of showstoppers, which they mostly deliver well, but fail to infuse with any genuine meaning. The plot itself wants badly to say something of worth, but instead it becomes unduly transfixed with its own twists and turns. It ultimately sacrifices any real arguments in favor of wowing us at all costs, bringing preposterous developments not only to Gale's life but to the plot to frame him. Any chance of legitimate discourse vanishes beneath the one-upsmanship.

The results turn The Life of David Gale into an inadvertent laugher, a tall tale of such outlandish conceit that any resemblance to reality becomes superficial at best. Though the film presumably opposes the death penalty (it gives every indication of admiring Gale's beliefs), its left-wing protagonists go so clearly off their collective rocker that they destroy any sympathy for their cause. Parker gives the proceedings a nice sense of pacing, but its central philosophical conceit is rendered untenable -- even hypocritical -- by his compulsive need to deliver the cheap thrills. After seeing The Life of David Gale, I went home and rewatched Dead Man Walking, the genre's high water mark, and an accomplishment to which Parker and Co. clearly aspire. Aspirations are a long way from realizations. That earlier film treats the question of the death penalty with sensitivity, complexity, and respect for all sides. The Life of David Gale treats it like a punch line. The joke, I'm sorry to say, is on them.

Review published 02.24.2003.

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