Bruce Fretts
December 14, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

Why ”Proof of Life” has failed to capture audiences

The opening weekend grosses are in for the Meg Ryan/ Russell Crowe romance ”Proof of Life,” and it’s pretty much DOA. It broke the $10 million mark — normally not bad for an adult drama during the busy Christmas season. But ”Proof” reportedly cost $80 million to produce, so the movie’s a long way from profitability. What went wrong?

You could blame it on the tabloid coverage of Ryan and Crowe’s real life affair, but all indications are that only helped spur interest in the film. More likely, concern over how the costars’ commingling would impact on the movie’s box office performance is what harmed it. Warner Bros. went out of its way to downplay the adultery angle of the story, in which a hostage’s wife (Ryan) falls for the negotiator (Crowe) laboring to secure her husband’s release. A sex scene between Ryan and Crowe was reportedly cut by director Taylor Hackford after test audiences felt it made her character less sympathetic. All that’s left is a single kiss that leaves Crowe — and audiences who are more sophisticated than those recruited for test screenings — unsatisfied.

Even more problematic is Ryan’s performance. Crowe does a sturdy, smoldering job, but the ”Sleepless in Seattle” starlet seems in over her perfectly tousled head. Usually, I find Ryan easier to take in dramas than romantic comedies, when she strains too hard to be cute (ironically, her finest work may be in 1993’s dark, underappreciated ”Flesh and Bone,” opposite estranged spouse Dennis Quaid). Here, she just seems snippy. It’s clear what attracts Ryan’s character to Crowe’s strapping savior, but we have no idea why she melts his steely heart. Could it be those sad puppy eyes?

The real stars of ”Proof,” however, aren’t Ryan and Crowe, but David Morse and David Caruso. As Ryan’s husband, an oil company engineer kidnapped by drug dealing South American rebels, Morse drops weight along with any sense of actorish vanity, withering away to a gaunt, gray bearded skeleton (Ryan, of course, remains fresh as a daisy through the entire six month ordeal). Since his days as Dr. Jack Morrison on NBC’s ”St. Elsewhere,” Morse has been a solid, subtle presence. His haunting turns in two Sean Penn directed films, ”The Indian Runner” and ”The Crossing Guard,” were largely overlooked, but this may be his first real shot at an Oscar nomination.

That is, unless he splits the supporting actor vote with Caruso, who’s positively electric as Dino, a rival negotiator who eventually becomes Crowe’s comrade in arms. You can feel Caruso’s excitement at being back in the big leagues after being sent down to the minors in the wake of his departure from ABC’s ”NYPD Blue.” His two stabs at movie stardom, ”Kiss of Death” and ”Jade,” flopped, but now he’s back as a character actor, a role in which he previously excelled in such movies as ”An Officer and a Gentleman” (also directed by Hackford) and ”Mad Dog and Glory.” Caruso even gives juice to a tired line like ”Don’t you die on me, man!” He’s the movie’s real proof of life.

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