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A Tangled Web

Along Came a Spider's flimsy plot survives only because of its many cheats

Easily the creepiest (and by far most interesting) thing about Along Came a Spider, yet another adaptation of one of James Patterson's alleged mystery novels featuring detective Alex Cross, is how much co-star Monica Potter looks, sounds and acts like Julia Roberts. Granted, it's hardly a startling revelation to anyone who's seen the actress's earlier films -- among them Heaven or Vegas, Patch Adams and this year's Head Over Heels-- but what was once a distraction has become the source of much intrigue. After about 15 minutes of this deadly dull thriller, you might even begin to wonder if she's not in fact the product of a genetic experiment perpetrated by Jeffrey Katzenberg, Sherry Lansing and Barry Diller, who, according to the trades, have combined forces to clone Hollywood's biggest stars, give them new names and hire them at cut-rate prices. How else do you explain Skeet Ulrich and Leelee Sobieski (who's not Helen Hunt -- no, really)? They're the goys from Brazil.

Potter no doubt has a bright, promising career ahead of her; maybe one of the networks looking to make a series of Erin Brockovich could cast her in the title role. One can only look forward to the day Potter graces the Oscar stage and gives her own "who, me?" speech that has all the grace and sincerity of a mob hit; that, or perhaps she can marry her own country lounge singer and swear it's true love, at least till the ink on the prenup's dry. Yup, Potter's a real special lady whose talent is bested only by her excellent eye for material.

Surely, though, one can understand why she chose Along Came a Spider: It's a sequel to the fairly successful 1997 Kiss the Girls, and it allows her the chance to play second fiddle to the maestro, Morgan Freeman. It's a bona fide hit, at least until people actually see it; then it's a short trip from theaters to pay-per-view. But give the filmmakers credit; director Lee Tamahori (Mulholland Falls) and first-time writer Marc Moss have strayed little from their predecessor, meaning they too have made a thriller that will cause you to jump out of your seat -- and into the nearest bed. Not only is it tedious and insipid, but its very existence hinges upon a plot point so ludicrous, unexpected and ill-conceived that the movie probably makes sense if you see only the last eight minutes.

Damaged goods: Morgan Freeman and Monica Potter play a pair of guilt-driven cops looking for redemption — and some better dialogue.
Joseph Lederer
Damaged goods: Morgan Freeman and Monica Potter play a pair of guilt-driven cops looking for redemption — and some better dialogue.

Ostensibly, it's a film about redemption and betrayal, but that gives the movie more credit than it gives itself. In the opening moments, Cross (played by Freeman with all the fervor of a sleepwalker on his way to the kitchen at 2 a.m.) watches his partner plunge to her death in a special-effects sequence that looks to have been filmed during a tour of Universal Studios. Cross broods for a few months, killing time by building miniature ships inside bottles, until he's rustled out of hibernation by a nut named Gary Soneji (Michael Wincott), who's kidnapped the daughter of a senator by posing as a teacher. The girl, Megan Rose Dunne (Mika Boorem), was snatched from her plush private-school digs from beneath the nose of Secret Service agent Jezzie Flannigan (Potter), who blames herself, just as Cross blames himself for his partner's death! They're meant for each other -- two damaged cops in search of a victim and a little inner peace.

Cross figures Soneji's out to make a name for himself; Megan's his Lindbergh baby, his ticket to the history books, immortality and infamy. But it soon becomes apparent to Cross and Flannigan, about 30 minutes after it becomes apparent to the audience, that Soneji might not be after Megan. She's more likely being used as the bait: Soneji's not after the daughter of some meaningless senator (played by Michael Moriarty) and his wife (Penelope Ann Miller); he's using her as bait to lure out of his cushy castle Megan's classmate, the son of the Russian president, no less. This, incidentally, isn't even the twist; you could see this plot point coming from a mile away on a dark road, even with its headlights off. Maybe because it's in the trailer.

Rather, the film's final act is constructed on one tenuous bit of luck after the next, all building toward so shrugging a climax that Freeman, by film's end, looks relieved the check cleared. Tamahori and Moss seem to think that shocking an audience with nonsense is satisfying, when in truth it's merely manipulative and condescending. For an audience to be thrilled, we must know the rules of the game; we're supposed to be able to play along. But Cross is merely making it up as he goes, lucking into the solution rather than actually solving the puzzle. He's the man who shoots blindly into the dark and somehow hits his target; the result is a climax with the force of a yawn.

 
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