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What Lies Beneath   B

DreamWorks Pictures

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writers: Clark Gregg (based on the story by Sarah Kernochian and Clark Gregg)
Cast: Harrison Ford, Michelle Pfeiffer, Diana Scarwid, Joe Morton, James Remar, and Miranda Otto, Katharine Towne.

Review by Rob Vaux

Bob Zemeckis really wants to be a serious filmmaker. Really, really, really. You can see it in his work: the earnestness, the technical flourishes, the heartfelt effort to impress his audience. He's even won an Oscar for the horrendously overrated Forrest Gump. But despite his considerable skill behind the camera -- and despite the occasional accolade that comes his way -- he's never reached the level he clearly aspires to. He lacks the vision of the truly great filmmakers -- that spark that drives the Altmans, the Scorseses, even the Spielbergs -- and settles for imitating his betters. His sheer craftsman's skill makes his work entertaining, but you always feel like he's aiming for more.

Case in point: What Lies Beneath, a supernatural thriller that clearly has Alfred Hitchcock on its mind. It features the voyeuristic neighbor from Rear Window, the unsettling bathroom from Psycho, even an icy blonde in the form of Michelle Pfeiffer. Pfeiffer plays Claire Spenser, the wife of a brilliant geneticist (Harrison Ford) whose only daughter has just left for college. Alone in an empty house, she begins noticing strange things in the corners of her vision: shapes in the bathtub, whispers in the halls, the occasional door that opens when it shouldn't. Her husband thinks she's nuts of course, but he's much too occupied with his latest ground-breaking project to worry about it. At least, that's the way it seems...

The first hour is a flurry of faux suspense and red herrings. Zemeckis creates a wonderfully tense atmosphere, but almost derails it with a lot of cheap scares (you know the kind where everyone screams and it turns out to be just the cat?). The plot focuses on some false assumptions early on, and much is made of certain details which have very little to do with the overall story. It works mostly because of Zemeckis's technical skills and because of his obvious relish for the material (he has a nifty retake on the famous Peeping Tom shot from Psycho that almost lets you forget who he lifted it from). His talent is enough to keep the suspense alive, even though there's nothing really going on.

The second half picks up considerably as he finally stops toying with the audience and tells us what's going on. Dark revelations rise about the Spensers' picture-perfect past, allowing the atmosphere he worked so hard for rise to a palpable head. Though the film's ad campaign has already given away some (not all) of the secrets, you wouldn't know it to watch the climax unfold. The two stars deserve a lot of credit for what works. Pfeiffer's small-boned fragility raptly holds our sympathies while Ford finds a terrific groove as a flawed man trying to understand what went wrong with his life. Without his natural sympathy -- and his traditionally heroic star image -- much of the film's second half wouldn't work. Zemeckis is smart enough to keep out of their way while adding creepy flourishes of his own around the edges. They occasionally slip into the odd cliché, but their combined skill holds What Lies Beneath aloft; higher, perhaps than it might otherwise deserve.

The primary difficulty here is one of talent vs. payoff. The film might have been a run-of-the-mill thriller but for the hard work and skill that went into making it. The result is polished, professional, and very entertaining…but still leaves you wondering what might have been. Is this the best these talented people can do -- turn a palatable movie into a pretty good one? There's nothing wrong with that -- and the film clearly improves because of their efforts -- but think of what they could do with something meatier. The only flaw in What Lies Beneath is that the artists involved are clearly swinging for the fences. The best they can manage here is a ground rule double.

Review published 07.28.2000.

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