2.21.2009

Leelee Sobieski in 88 Minutes (2008) - Razzie's Worst Supporting Actress Nominee for 2008

Tonight, somewhere in Hollywood, The 2008 Golden Raspberry Awards will be announced to "honor" the worst of 2008's cinematic accomplishments. The Razzies are, in many ways, the anti-Oscars -- an idiosyncratic, quarter-century tradition wherein a loose alliance of snarky fanboys offer a singular "raspberry" to some of the year's most conspicuous missteaps and appalling overreaches. In 2007, as part of my ongoing project attending to the most notable "actressing at the edges," I started a new "tradition" by asking my lovely readers to select one Razzie-nominated "Worst Supporting Actress" performance to get StinkyLulu's signature Supporting Actress treatment. And you voted. And I profiled. And, now a year later, it came time to do it all again. Once again, you voted and I screened and, now, without further ado, it's time to consider the supporting actress stylings of your choice...

...Leelee Sobieski in 88 Minutes (2008).
approximately 12 minutes and 16 seconds
10 scenes

roughly 11% of film's total running time
Leelee Sobieski plays Lauren Douglas, one of the handful of talented students enrolled in an elite forensic psychology course with the notorious Dr. Jack Gramm (a bewigged Al Pacino, who spends much of the movie dining on the scenery and then taking little naps with his eyes open).
The basic scenario of this ostensibly post-noir puzzler is, of course, super simple and absurdly complicated -- or what I've come to call "simplicated." In short, some years back, Pacino's Gramm provided the expert testimony necessary to get a serial killer sentenced to death. (Notably, the serial killer is played by none other than Neal McDonough, a co-star of last year's featured Razzie supporting actress as well.) Now, however, with the killer's execution looming, a series of gruesome murders -- each adhering meticulously to the convicted criminal's distinctive alleged profile -- begins to emerge. Each of these new deaths targets a young woman in Gramm's circle and each discovery further implicates Gramm as the actual perpetrator. At the same time, Gramm is receiving cryptic cell-phone messages informing him that he has only 88 minutes to live. Like I said, totally simplicated.
Sobieski's Lauren is one of Gramm's most attentive and articulate students...
And, as a young woman in Gramm's circle, she's vulnerable as a potential target for this new killer who seems to be on something of a spree.
(SPOILER WARNING: There's no way to talk about this performance without "spoiling" most of the essential twists in the narrative. So if you really want to experience it all for yourself, begone with you. For all the rest of y'all, read on -- the film's actually a touch more interesting when some of the secret twists are known. That being said, the twists aren't especially subtle and I had it pretty much figured out shortly after the scene in the parking structure.)
After a few near misses, some of which have landed actual hits on the young women in his life, Pacino's Gramm begins to doubt everyone and everything around him, all except for his trusty assistant Shelley (Amy Brenneman, gamely playing a character who's I guess the 2007 version of Mercedes McCambridge -- supposedly a lesbian but hopelessly devoted to her womanizing, patronizing boss nonetheless). At just about this point in the narrative, every secondary character's latent ominousness is amplified. At every moment, we are left to ask: Should Pacino's Gramm try to protect this/that damsel? Or is Pacino's Gramm actually the one in need of protection?
The potentially dangerous damsels in this post-noir consist of a diverse lot -- mostly swooning colleagues/proteges, including Sobieski, Brenneman, Deborah Kara Unger, Alicia Witt, and Benjamin McKenzie (who's very cute in the role of swooning damsel). Among these possibly dangerous damsels, only Alicia Witt is able to acquit herself of the material, somehow evincing a witty, empathetic and mildly plausible performance from the increasingly incoherent convolutions of the script. (Based on this performance alone, I'm reconvinced that Alicia Witt really does deserve a better career.)
If you haven't already guessed, I'll finally spoil it now: Sobieski's Lauren is the actually dangerous damsel of the piece -- the true post-noir femme fatale of 88 Minutes. Sobieski's Lauren is, as it turns out, also the appeals attorney for the serial killer facing execution and she's the one setting up the massive "frame job" being run on Pacino's Gramm. (I find that, as I write this, it's difficultnot to refer to Pacino as Grammpa; the spectacle of Pacino -- who's pushing 70 -- pushing himself on all these 20-something babelets is just unpleasant, kinda like The Girls Next Door Go To College. It's, just, well, ew.)
Supposedly brilliant, objectively beautiful, capable of bedding both men and women as necessary to further her diabolocal scheme, Sobieski's Lauren is both puppet and mastermind. (Turns out she's doing all this to spring her beloved serial killer fron the joint.) All this, of course, is spelled out in the requisite reveal sequence, when Pacino's Gramm arrives just in time for Sobieski's Lauren to "frame" him for two last murders.
And it's in this final sequence that Sobieski truly earns her 2008 Razzie nomination.
Sobieski's appeal as a screen performer has long drawn from the beauty of her preternatural stoicism, a kind of serene implacability that -- especially as a teen actress -- seemed suggestive of intriguing depths of intelligence and of feeling.
Here, though, in the role of a somewhat love-crazed evil genius, that same stoic serenity reads more as shallowness. Now in her later 20s, Sobieski here still seems like a precocious teen actor, albeit one who's well beyond her depth. The role is drenched with possibility -- it's a love-crazed evil genius for cripes sake -- and yet Sobieski's matter-of-fact approach boils everything so that it's uniformly glib. Indeed, Sobieski's more convincingly passionate when parrotting lecture hall homilies in the first scene than she is when detailing the furious particulars of her revenge plot (which, by the by, included the ritualized sadistic murders of several women she had befriended and/or slept with). The character's a monster; the performance is bland.
What's more, Sobieski's business-"lite" demeanor diminishes the character in ways that are almost mocking. And while there is a good deal to mock in this film, Sobieski's choice to tacitly disavow this woman's awful, misguided complexities places her outside the character in unproductive ways. As a result, Sobieskie's decision to not play the scene seriously transforms what might have been a spectacular aria of criminal passion (and a potential camp classic) into a wan, whining bit of immature posturing. (I mean, really: Alicia Witt gives a more compelling performance in this scene -- while bound, gagged and facing away from the camera -- than does Sobieski, who has the camera's full attention as well as a multi-page climactic monologue.) Most actresses laboring at the edges would "kill" for the opportunity to show their stuff in a role like this but Sobieski tosses it off like she does her long braid, like it's no big deal.
In this final scene, Leelee Sobieski does something I didn't think possible -- she steals the "jaw-droppingly wierd acting choices" mantle from Pacino. His choices look almost sensible next to hers (and he mostly looks like a dog who falls asleep between barks). I didn't expect Sobieski's work in this role to be so deserving of a Razzie nomination but, should you happen to notice her name among tonight's list of "winners," know that Sobieski's is an honor fully earned.

5 comments:

Alex in Movieland said...

she can't win. they don't hate her that much. The Razzies always gotta be more personal.

Criticlasm said...

"who spends much of the movie dining on the scenery and then taking little naps with his eyes open". So hysterical.

NATHANIEL R said...

I've always loved Alicia Witt and always hated Leelee Sobieski so even though I would never see this movie I'm glad that your legwork has only reconfirmed my brilliant (ha ha) discernment about their acting skills

Michael said...

It's pretty easy to find out who's representing someone in an appeal. And lawyers for death-row inmates serve as their mouthpieces, so it's not like she'd be able to conceal her involvement. Of course, that logical flaw sounds like the least of this film's problems.

Slayton said...

She was awful and made me forget how good she was as a teen. Alicia Witt was actually good in this movie - she does deserve a better career.

And Neal McDonough only stars in terrible movies but somehow he manages to give the best performance in all of them? Someone give him a good role.