Film Reviews

The Evil and the Stupid

It's pointless to respectfully review a film as ineptly written, indifferently directed and slothfully performed as Just Cause, the new legal thriller about a Harvard law professor and anti-death penalty advocate (Sean Connery) who heads down south to the Florida Everglades to win freedom for a condemned black murderer (Blair Underwood) whom he believes is innocent.

To be fair, if the movie had been an interesting piece of filmmaking that held my attention, a lot of the things I hate about it might not have even occurred to me. (An improbable plot never hurt Vertigo or Dirty Harry.) So instead of a review, I'll offer a list of questions to put to anybody who tries to convince you this film is good.

Now it's difficult to discuss the countless reasons why Just Cause is morally repugnant or the countless reasons why it's a rotten movie without giving away key elements of the plot; the screenplay's surprises may be stupid, but they're still surprises. So if you haven't seen the film yet, read no further:

1. When Professor Paul Armstrong (Connery) faces down a prominent conservative opponent (George Plimpton) in a death penalty debate at the beginning of the picture, is it possible that the two sides of the issue could have been presented any more simplistically?

Between Armstrong's rote babbling about the effects of electrocution on the human body and his opponent's riposte that the death penalty satisfies our need for "revenge" and "an eye for an eye" (Harvard sure knows how to choose intellectually worthy opponents, eh?), the scene appears to have been conceived by a precocious junior high schooler who suddenly remembered he had to write a report on capital punishment 10 minutes before class.

2. Afterward, a woman (Ruby Dee) shows up and gives Armstrong a letter from her son, Bobby Earl Ferguson (Underwood), that pleads for the professor's help. Bobby Earl was convicted in the 1987 rape, mutilation and murder of a prepubescent white girl, but the prosecution's only substantial piece of evidence -- Bobby Earl's confession -- was extracted at gunpoint by a supposedly self-loathing black cop (Laurence Fishburne). Bobby Earl's mother reveals that her son specifically told her to approach Armstrong first, and said if she was turned away, she was to proceed down a list of famous capital punishment opponents until she found one willing to take the case.

We later find out that Bobby Earl is evil, brilliant and guilty as hell, and that he only secured Armstrong's services because he wanted to get revenge against Armstrong's much younger wife, Laurie (Kate Capshaw), by trapping the Armstrong family in a web of lies so elaborate that not even God could have kept track of all the details.

Capshaw plays a onetime lawyer who grew up in Bobby Earl's town. At the beginning of her legal career, she prosecuted Bobby Earl on a trumped-up, racially motivated kidnapping charge -- a charge that was later dismissed for lack of evidence. The lawyer knew she had no evidence against Bobby Earl, but she contrived to keep him in jail anyway, just to establish herself as a tough cookie. While he was in the clink, cops beat, tortured and castrated him. And according to the film's comic-book Freudian theorizing, this tragedy is what turned him into a child molester and murderer.

Here, finally, is question two: What if Armstrong had said no to Bobby Earl's request for help? What would Bobby Earl have done? Would he have picked a different famous professor with a wife who deserved death and tried out his revenge plot on another family? Or would he have simply shrugged and accepted his fate?

Related questions:
Is there any jailhouse on earth, no matter how backward its locale, where the castration of an inmate could go unnoticed and uninvestigated?

Is there any human being on earth (besides, apparently, Bobby Earl) who would suffer castration during a police interrogation and just go on with his life?

3. Again, Bobby Earl is guilty as hell and just about everybody on Earth seems to know it except the hero. Why, then, when Armstrong goes down to the Everglades to gather evidence, do the townspeople continually harass and intimidate him? Moreover, why do the police who coerced Bobby Earl's confession harass and intimidate the visiting Yankee, if indeed they are convinced of their own righteousness?

4. If there were a real Florida town with the same name as the one in the film, would its inhabitants be able to hire a lawyer, unearth some kind of obscure anti-defamation statute and sue the filmmakers for making every last person who lives there look like a racist, idiotic monster?

And if the potato-headed kid on that front porch in Deliverance lived in this town, would these people be so bowled over by his intellect that they'd elect him mayor?

5. Because Bobby Earl is guilty as hell, the whole movie is a sick joke on the poor, ignorant, bleeding-heart liberal professor. Is the movie's message, then, that civil rights should only apply to innocent people -- and that the cops were justified in torturing and intimidating Bobby Earl to extract a confession, seeing as how he later turned out to be guilty as hell?

6. Here's how the elaborate fake-out plot works: While doing time on death row, Bobby Earl works out a deal with a confessed mass-murderer -- an ivory-skinned, Bible-quoting maniac named Blair Sullivan (Ed Harris) -- to confess to the girl's murder and reveal the whereabouts of the murder weapon. In exchange, Bobby Earl agrees to kill the mass-murderer's parents once he wins his freedom. The knife, as it turns out, is hidden in the mouth of a storm drain. So the question: Is it really possible that for eight long years, there was no rain in the Everglades?

And is it really likely that a knife found in a storm drain eight years after a murder would prove jack one way or the other? More to the point, wouldn't someone somewhere, even someone from a Florida town full of racist morons, suspect the truth -- that Bobby Earl, a block mate of Blair Sullivan, could have told him where the knife was and thereby orchestrated Sullivan's phony revelation?

7. Throughout the picture, for some unexplained reason, various character actors keep repetitiously grinding their teeth as if chewing something we can't see. Question: Is it scenery?

8. One of the key factors that makes Armstrong believe in Bobby Earl's innocence is the fact that he's a former college scholarship student -- handsome, articulate and presentable. Given that the film's characters are conceived in archetypal terms and are presented as emblematic of certain kinds of black and white people, and considering that Bobby Earl is guilty as hell, is one of the messages of Just Cause that we shouldn't be fooled by such outward traits -- that despite outward appearances, all young black men have the capacity for violence?

9. Did Blair Underwood and Laurence Fishburne, two of the most gifted black actors of their generation, ever express concern to their agents that they were acting in a bigoted, reactionary and thoroughly stupid movie?

10. During the climax, which sees Laurie Armstrong and her prepubescent daughter sexually menaced by a sweaty, gun-and-knife-wielding, foul-mouthed, bug-eyed Bobby Earl, did it occur to anyone involved that the setup is so inherently racist that even D.W. Griffith might have thought twice about staging it?

11. When informed of Blair Sullivan and his Henry Lee Lucas-length list of heinous offenses, Professor Armstrong seems surprised, as if he's never heard of one of the most grotesque and colorful serial killers in the nation. Armstrong is also surprised to discover that his wife once prosecuted a wrongly accused man in a racially charged kidnapping case. He is also surprised to learn that Bobby Earl was involved in such a case to begin with, despite having been given access to both newspaper back issues and police records. So when Paul Armstrong's adventure in the Everglades was over and he returned to Harvard, were the other people in his department surprised to learn that their esteemed colleague is a complete idiot?

12. Early on in the movie, before he realizes he's been played by Bobby Earl for the mush-headed liberal sissy that he is, Paul Armstrong tells the small-town cops, "If what you got was a confession, then my ass is a banjo!" -- a statement that, one assumes, is considered a sly, folksy homily in Scotland.

Given that what the cops got actually was a confession, coerced or no, wouldn't a more appropriate ending for the film show Armstrong striding to the podium at the next meeting of the Harvard debating society, dropping his pants, grasping his pasty white buttocks, and launching into a spirited rendition of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown?"

Just Cause.
Directed by Arne Glimcher. With Sean Connery, Ed Harris, Laurence Fishburne and Kate Capshaw.

Rated R.
102 minutes.

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Matt Zoller Seitz