The Devil’s Advocate
You don’t go into a movie called The Devil’s Advocate (Warner Bros.), starring Al Pacino and his gleaming teeth, expecting to see a finely calibrated portrait of evil. You go in expecting a brazenly hokey, in-your-face portrait of evil, and that, I’m happy to say, is just what you get. Directed by Taylor Hackford, The Devil’s Advocate is a schlock-religioso legal thriller — The Firm meets Angel Heart — and it’s at once silly, overwrought, and almost embarrassingly entertaining.
Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves), a wily young defense attorney from Jacksonville, Fla., is invited to join the offices of Milton, Chadwick, Waters, a wealthy New York law firm founded and run by John Milton (Pacino), a lawyer so ruthless, so egomaniacal, so eager to take on the most unscrupulous of clients, that he’s … well, he’s even more shameless than Alan Dershowitz. (Remember, it’s only a movie.)
Kevin and his beautiful wife, Mary Ann (Charlize Theron), are moved, courtesy of the firm, into a spectacular apartment on Fifth Avenue. That’s when their lives begin to fall apart. There are sexual temptations, moral corruptions, shivery little moments in which people morph into demons. Pacino, of course, is playing the devil himself. The premise of his outrageous performance is that it’s fun to be the baddest guy on God’s block. By now, there are three kinds of Al Pacino performances: the ones where he’s a great actor (the Godfather films, Donnie Brasco), the ones where he’s a bad actor ( … And Justice for All, Heat), and, as in this case, the ones where he’s a great actor impersonating a bad actor. He emotes with lewd abandon, he chews up the scenery as if it were the juiciest filet mignon, yet he does it knowingly, with a wink and a leer, as if the thrill of letting himself go were just too succulent to resist.
The Devil’s Advocate is probably Pacino’s finest bad performance since Scarface. His John Milton is a raucous, horny devil who lives for the moment when he can spot someone’s weakness and pounce. He never coerces; he lets you reveal your secret vice. (If you don’t choose to sin, he hasn’t won your soul.) Pacino draws his lips back over his choppers, making his smile as grotesque as possible, and he stares at whomever he’s talking to as if he were trying to burn a hole through the wall behind them. By the film’s end, he’s shouting, lip-synching to Sinatra, even tossing off an impersonation of Keanu Reeves’ stilted Southern accent, yet he’s like a grizzly bear walking a tightrope — you can’t believe he stays balanced, but there he is, cocky and triumphant, intoxicated by his own hamminess.
Next to Pacino, there’s the always disquieting sight of Reeves impersonating an intelligent grown-up. Reeves speaks his lines robotically, in a ”manly” low bark, and his face rarely moves (it’s that placid Keanu mask). He’s wooden, all right, but it’s balsa-wood acting — light and airy and easy to watch. The movie is at its most imaginative when Kevin is wrestling with supernatural erotic demons, watching his demure wife change back and forth during sex into a kinky, smoldering office siren (Reeves’ face leaves no doubt which woman is more of a turn-on). It’s at its most plodding when Kevin has to defend a real estate tycoon (Craig T. Nelson) accused of triple homicide. We get the point — if the guy is guilty, Kevin is selling his soul by taking the case — but the whole lawyers-are-lower-than-vermin routine is, at this point, more than a bit tired. The Devil’s Advocate has less kick as a legal drama than as an urban fairy tale of sin, ambition, and big money.
Of course, it’s not as if we haven’t been there before. Wall Street; Bright Lights, Big City — The Devil’s Advocate is like a horror-camp version of a hundred yuppie cautionary tales. (Who is Pacino playing, after all, but Gordon Gekko with horns?) Maybe that’s why Reeves’ blankness is almost appropriate. Kevin Lomax isn’t a character; he’s a stand-in for a character. Amazingly, the one performer who succeeds in creating a flesh-and-blood victim is Charlize Theron. At first, you think she’s just babelicious window dressing — her face is all soft, cherubic curves, with lips as ripe as Monroe’s. But as the devil plays his games, Mary Ann, left behind by her husband, begins to lose her mind and see visions of the dark side, and Theron, soulful in her terror, convinces you that she’s really seeing them. When an actress brings this much conviction to material this luridly outlandish, it’s anyone’s guess what she could do with a real role. B