*½/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B+
starring Michael Douglas, Brittany Murphy, Famke Janssen, Sean Bean
screenplay by Anthony Peckham and Patrick Smith Kelly, based on the novel by Andrew Klavan
directed by Gary Fleder
by Walter Chaw It's probably not at all surprising that lock-step director Gary Fleder's Don't Say a Word, based on a by-the-numbers novel by fiction hack Andrew Klavan (True Crime), has less original material than Michael Jackson. It opens on a heist scene that reminds of Point Break and Heat (plus a thousand other heist films), segues into a home invasion/child-snatching that recalls Michael Douglas's own Fatal Attraction, proceeds into a cell phone cat-and-mouse like Ransom, ends with a cascade of particulate debris that brings to mind Witness, and touches base to varying degrees with Sliver, Nick of Time, Instinct, Nuts, and Awakenings in particular in its sloppy patient/doctor dynamic (and the naming of a secondary character "Dr. Sachs"). There's even a bit concerning a stolen child, a mother, and a song familiar to them both taken whole from Hitchcock's remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much. Sadly, Don't Say a Word forgets to first establish that the tune is meaningful. It is a poignant omission that illustrates as well as any the problems of a lazy knock-off film that plays a lot of familiar notes but doesn't once strike a chord nor find a melody of its own.
Dr. Nathan Conrad (Douglas) is a brilliant psychiatrist who has a flair for connecting with children and teens (The Sixth Sense)--we take this at the word of Conrad's portly colleague Dr. Sachs (Oliver Platt), for his cutesy dealings with his preciously precocious offspring (Skye McCole Bartusiak) and combative sessions with deeply disturbed patient Elisabeth Burrows (Brittany Murphy) are insufficient evidence. Despite a blatant lack of a nurturing instinct (exacerbated by Douglas's trademark reptilian smarm), Dr. Conrad overcomes the film's title in record time, unravelling the decades-long enigma Elisabeth in about five minutes with the aid of a rag doll and a chocolate turkey. If unearthing festering emotional bugaboos is this easy, I have a serious bone to pick with my own therapist.
Dr. Conrad's superhuman aptitude for his profession is lucky in that bad guys, led by the evil Patrick Koster (veteran snarler Sean Bean, reprising, for all intents and purposes, his Patriot Games role), have stolen his daughter. The ransom? Squeeze out a mysterious six-digit number from fruitcake Elisabeth before the clock strikes five that evening. Because of a ridiculous opening sequence (the success of which depends upon the scientific knowledge of the smoulder-rate of a cigarette), we suspect that the little moppet's abduction and the six-digit number ("Is it a phone number?" asks the brilliant Dr. Conrad, apparently still living in 1956) has something to do with a red McGuffin--I mean, "diamond."
Tossed in for flavouring is tough NYPD detective Sandra Cassidy (Jennifer Esposito, in a different movie until the last ten minutes), and Platt, briefly chewing scenery in ridiculous Harry Potter glasses while gamely enduring a couple of major plot twists so unconvincing you can sense him wishing for a magic wand with which to spirit himself into something better. Patricia Mauceri, so great in Joel Hopkins's Jump Tomorrow, shows up to twice pronounce "turkey" in Italian before being dismissed. (Take it as a warning.) And Famke Janssen, who's shown a spark in films like Monument Ave. and Rounders, spends Don't Say a Word laid up with a broken leg (Rear Window, The Bone Collector), reduced to a slasher-movie heroine in a bizarre and badly-conceptualized vignette that wraps up a major plotline with a good half hour left to go in the film. Her character's sudden and ludicrous emancipation is only one of dozens of orphaned plot points left to rot by the highway of narrative like so much thriller formula road-kill.
Don't Say a Word is intent on exhuming plots from as many films in as short a time as possible, and falling in line with that recycling spirit, Douglas and Murphy resurrect the same roles that they've fallen back on for most of their careers. It's a rote and bathetic production from top to bottom, from Douglas's successful man violated from without (The Game, Fatal Attraction) to Murphy's all-too familiar turn (see her unbalanced character in Girl, Interrupted); from Esposito's underwritten cliché of a cop to the laughably stock band of cardboard cut-out villains. Don't Say a Word is not like any film you've ever seen before--it's like every film you've ever seen before, and its title resolves itself by the end as an ill-fated plea to inevitably underwhelmed audiences: keep your warnings to other would-be ticket-buyers to yourself. Originally published: September 28, 2001.
by Bill Chambers Fox's Don't Say a Word DVD has curiously modest packaging: the disc's extras are of a calibre and quantity that should've earned it the Special Edition label but somehow failed to. This is a DVD with ambition, if also arrogance and lacking in the savvy to pull off anything exceptional. I'm thinking of the featurettes--each introduced by John Sayles look-alike Gary Fleder--housed under the umbrella "Cinema Master Class" (!). Divided into Pre-production, Production, and Post-production, this section does not a film expert make, but it has periodic charms. Before we get down to the nitty-gritty: the 2.35:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer is one of Fox's best in a while, though contrast is occasionally greyer than I prefer; the Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 mixes are quite rumbly, and there's excellent sidewall imaging with either audio option during the dirt-nap climax.
Onto the abovementioned extras:
Brittany Murphy's screen test is here, and she's better than she is in the movie proper! Fleder says that he took the footage to Bellevue for shrink approval. You'll also find storyboard-to-scene splitscreen comparisons for the "Bank Heist" and "Potter's Field" sequences (note how unlike the storyboard panels the finished shots are), as well as a 'producing workshop' with Arnold and Anne Kopelson that's genuinely informative in that they distinguish between the various types of producers credited at the beginning of every motion picture.
Fleder starts to look like a ninny in "You Are There" when he says he was both going for a gothic feel and trying to suggest Larry Clark photographs with the interiors of Don't Say a Word's psychiatric hospital. Through two other vignettes, we also learn how he covered the subway for crosscutting and that he shot the dock stuff day-for-night. Nine (!) angles of Aggie's escape are here for the sampling, too; a truly eye-opening "Set Tour with Production Designer Nelson Coates" rounds out Production.
Fleder drops a few head-scratchers in "A Conversation with Director Gary Fleder", chiefly his assertion that filmmakers are like airplane pilots: they get better the more hours they clock behind the camera. Faster, maybe, but better? Most directing careers assume a downward trajectory. Elsewhere on the DVD, Fleder gives props to Joseph Sargent's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, a great movie indeed; but Sargent went on to helm Jaws: The Revenge and The Karen Carpenter Story--you can't tell me he improved with experience. A glimpse at a Don't Say a Word scoring session ("Thriller Themes") and a wireframe rendering of the trench sequence fill out Post-Production.
Three utterly disposable deleted scenes, one unusually non-flashy 8-minute making-of (young Bartusiak is interviewed holding her dollies), eight filmographies (sorry, "Vital Statistics"), and a trailer for Wallstreet [sic] later, I listened to the commentary tracks. Douglas, Bean, Janssen, Murphy, and Platt talk over two scenes apiece, Fleder the whole film. While Murphy is less flighty than one expects, the other participants are far more predictable, with Fleder taking the running-off-at-the-mouth cake upon comparing Bean to Robert Shaw. At the point of Murphy's sing-songy delivery of "I'll never tell," he pauses to listen, and then asserts that the line became as much a part of pop culture as the catchphrase, "I see dead people." Put down that crackpipe, Gary. Originally published: February 10, 2002.