Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Cape Fear (1991)

2.5/4

Starring: Nick Nolte, Robert DeNiro, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis, Joe Don Baker, Illeana Douglas

Rated R for Strong Violence, and Language

If you recall, I was not a fan of the original "Cape Fear."  I found it to be half-baked and without any bite.  So you would think that a remake directed by Martin Scorcese and starring Robert DeNiro would fix the problem.  Yes and no.  It's not that Scorcese's version plays it safe and soft-pedals the violence and brutality of its central conflict.  It's that Scorcese makes a number of bad choices in doing so and that certain actors aren't able to perform up to expected levels.

Sam Bowden (Nolte) is a successful lawyer living in Florida with his wife Leigh (Lange) and troubled teenage daughter Danielle (Lewis).  One day he is stopped on the way to his car by a man who claims to know him.  His name is Max Cady (DeNiro), a nasty piece of work who has just been freed after a 14 year prison sentence.  While Sam defended him and plead him down to a lesser sentence, Max believes (correctly) that he could have been set free without having to set foot in jail.  As one can imagine, something like this would leave anyone mad, and Max begins a reign of terror that will push the Bowden family to the brink.

Martin Scorcese took this job from his good friend Steven Spielberg, who told him that directing a mainstream movie would lead to better projects.  Thankfully, this was true, but I wish that Scorcese's heart was in it.  It's sloppy and at times self-indulgent, two qualities that I've never witnessed in a movie from the meticulous and innovative Scorcese.

The performances are a mixed bag, which is unusual for a Scorcese movie since he is known for cultivating strong performances from his actors.  Nick Nolte is fine as a family man paying for his past mistakes.  Jessica Lange completely misinterprets the role of the bitter Leigh, playing her like a bipolar nutcase.  Juliette Lewis, who arguably has the next important role to Max Cady, is flat as Danielle.  Danielle is a rebellious teenager who has a twisted, sexual fascination with Cady, and Lewis isn't able to sell the character.  She wasn't the first choice; some actresses, like Alyssa Milano and Christina Applegate, were offered the role but had to turn it down due to conflicts with their co-workers on the sitcoms they were working on, while others, like Reese Witherspoon and Drew Barrymore, blew their auditions.  Lewis is a good actress, but she can't handle this complex of a role.

The film went through 24 drafts before Scorcese agreed to direct it.  The main point of contention was that the Bowden family was written as being happy while in true Scorcese fashion, he wanted them to be miserable.  But the characters are so lacking in development that I didn't care about any of them.  Danielle is never believable and Max Cady is initially creepy but descends into self-parody.  The writing just isn't there.  Maybe Scorcese was hamstrung by the needs of the genre or the meddling of the studio.

I don't think so.  Many of these decisions were obviously Scorcese's, like the sluggish pacing with some "key" scenes or the awkward handling of others.  I like Scorcese, but I can't defend his work on this film.

Given the director's track record and the premise, I was hoping that Scorcese could fully exploit the potential of this terrifying premise, but he apparently cannot.  There's no reason this couldn't have worked.  It has enough ambiguity and edge to improve on the original, but by no means is it an unqualified success.

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