The wheels of justice grind slowly in The Pelican Brief. Really slowly. Director Alan Pakula does to the John Grisham best-seller what he did three years ago to Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent: He stretches it out, films it in deep, important browns, and leaches the juice from his actors. That worked with Presumed because the novel was as much about the anatomy of guilt as it was a courtroom murder mystery. But Grisham doesn’t have Turow’s pretensions-not yet, anyway-and his books aren’t weighted down with deep emotions. They’re tasty fast food, a fact that director Sydney Pollack understood when he surrounded Tom Cruise with a splashy condiment tray of supporting players in The Firm. Pakula insists that The Pelican Brief is haute cuisine, and the seriousness nearly wrecks it.

None of this is Julia Roberts’ doing, nor Denzel Washington’s. Both bring their respective brands of star charisma (hers, radiant; his, regal) to a story that needs all the help it can get. Roberts plays Darby Shaw, a Tulane law student who (as millions of Grisham fans know) stumbles upon the solution to the assassination of two Supreme Court Justices. She types her inspired guess into a legal report (called the pelican brief for reasons too complex to go into), passes it to her professor/ lover (Sam Shepard), who passes it on to a buddy at the FBI (John Heard), who passes it up the Beltway chain of power. Whereupon all of Washington’s dirty tricksters come out of the woodwork to try to kill Darby.

Right away, there’s a problem. Like a tour guide muttering ”Move it along,” Pakula hustles us through early scenes of Darby conceiving, researching, and writing her hot potato before we really have a handle on who she is. There’s no other way out, though: Since the pelican brief is just a MacGuffin-the thing everyone wants and is willing to kill for-its sole purpose is to get the chase up and going.

That would be fine, except that this director is not very good at the chase. As Roberts wends her way toward both Washington, D.C., and Washington, Denzel (as heroic investigative journalist Gray Grantham), The Pelican Brief settles into a deadening rhythm of snoop, get chased, hide in a hotel room; snoop, get chased, hide in a hotel room. Pakula delivers the elements of suspense: a bomb under a car and when will Gray turn the ignition? A killer in the closet and when will he strike? This kind of stuff works to a point because it’s ingrained into our moviegoing consciousness, but it’s barely taken past the Pavlovian level here.

It would be nice if the supporting cast held some wild cards. Alas. Sam Shepard pulls a wooden Indian as Darby’s professor; the scene in which he ”anguishes” over the assassinations just about defines bad acting. Other performances are competent and underdrawn: Robert Culp as a bland, hollow President; Tony Goldwyn as a scheming chief of staff; John Lithgow as Gray’s editor; and James B. Sikking as a taciturn FBI chief. Empty suits, all. The only live wire is Stanley Tucci as Khamel, the terrorist master of disguises who can instantly transform himself into a boring, bespectacled American (i.e., like everyone else in the movie).

That leaves it to Roberts and Washington to carry the load, and they almost pull it off. Roberts returns from her time off with a newly confident grace. She spends much of Brief in lumpy college clothing, ducking her head; even so, she’s as luminous as a dream of a movie star. As for Washington, it’s doubtful whether there’s a smarter leading man working today. His role is reactive-Gray mostly responds to the information that Darby and others give him-but the actor shuts the doors of his face and gets us wondering how he’ll react. In a movie full of poker faces, Washington’s the only one who makes withholding emotion seem sexy.

So it’s an intense disappointment when The Pelican Brief (unlike Grisham’s book) goes out of its way to deny these two a romantic clinch. Yes, it’s refreshing to see a movie where the leads don’t have to get horizontal, but you know that if Gray had been played by a white actor, he and Darby would be clambering all over each other-especially given the longing looks that pass between them by the end. Overt racism? Marketing nervousness? All I know (as a viewer and reviewer) is what comes to me off the screen, and what comes off the screen here are two actors who convinced me that their characters had fallen wholly in love. And the movie barely lets them hold hands. For all Pelican Brief’s political hugger-mugger, that’s the crime that sticks with you. C-

The Pelican Brief
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