April 12, 2001

Clean Out the Cobwebs

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Along Came a Spider is sold as a cerebral thriller, with an intricate plot as elegant and complicated as a spider’s web. The thing about spider webs, however, is that while they can be elegant and beautiful, they also usually accumulate in dusty old corners or on unused knick-knacks and junk. They just sit there in dark, musty corners of your home. And in the end, that’s the feeling you get when you walk out of Spider; it’s not particularly good or bad. It’s just there.

Along Came a Spider is based on James Patterson’s first Alex Cross novel and is the second to make it to the big screen — the second novel in the series was the basis for 1997’s critically acclaimed Kiss the Girls. Morgan Freeman reprises his role as famed detective and criminal profiler Dr. Alex Cross. Madman Gary Soneji (Michael Wincott) passes himself off as a computer teacher at one of Washington’s most exclusive private schools to kidnap a senator’s daughter, Megan Rose (Mika Boorem). Soneji lures Cross into his web in order to secure a place in criminal history as the topic of one of Cross’ books. At Cross’ side is Secret Service agent Jezzie Flannigan (Monica Potter), who was on duty when the kidnapping took place and seeks redemption by catching Soneji.

The web that director Lee Tamahori tries to weave is unfortunately one full of gaping tears and holes. A D.C. city cop takes over an FBI investigation while teaming up with a Secret Service agent? Even if your only knowledge of procedure comes from T.V. crime dramas, you’d know that in real life the only web in this situation would be the massive, impenetrable tangle of bureaucratic red-tape. But, Cross seemingly handles the investigation all alone while every available Federal agent stands around awestruck, right up to the climax of the film, where he stalks the kidnapper single-handedly without back-up. Soneji’s motives for involving Cross are never sufficiently explained, either. Tamahori seems to expect the audience to know how famous and competent Cross is from the get-go, which is a major problem if you’ve never read the novels or seen Kiss the Girls.

The film’s biggest flaw, however, is that from the start, there’s a palpable lack of intensity to what’s being played as a suspenseful thriller. There’s no real sense of danger conveyed by the situation or by Soneji. This might be due to the earliness of the killer’s introduction; his face and the majority of his motives are revealed to the audience far too quickly, removing the dramatic build-up and mystery that is usually found in movies of this genre.

Most of the problem is caused by the general apathy displayed by the cast members of Spider, who for the most part look like they’re proud graduates of the George W. Bush School of Public Speaking. If you’re bored during the movie, cover your ears and imagine everybody making a “duuuuuuuhh” noise instead of speaking — you’ll be surprised how perfectly it fits.

The worst examples of this dazed lack of emotion are Megan Rose’s parents, played by Penelope Ann Miller and Michael Moriarty. They give a true tour de force performance here, presenting a broad range of facial expressions ranging from confused to slightly more confused. Potter isn’t quite as cardboard in her performance, but unfortunately fares far worse since her Flannigan character is onscreen for a significantly longer amount of time.

This thespian malaise occasionally strikes even veteran actors like Freeman. While he brings his usual stately, knowing presence to the screen, there’s no real question that he’s simply coasting through his performance here. Even with minimal effort, however, Freeman delivers an enjoyable, if not stellar, performance. Freeman’s done the wise old mentor/hero countless times before, but he does it so well and with such ease that it’s forgivable when he’s typecast in this way.

If the viewer can stay interested until the last half hour of the movie, things start to pick up with a fairly surprising pair of plot twists. Tamahori tries to blow the audience away with these character swerves, but unfortunately the caliber of ammunition he uses isn’t quite large enough to penetrate. It’s loud and shocking, but not enough to really make up for the rest of what is in the end a fairly lackluster movie.

Archived article by Matt Chock