A glossy, sexy, twisty comic thriller, “Goodbye Lover” may be the first film about which you can say that it’s enjoyable as long as Don Johnson is in it. Entertaining for a while on the pulpiest superficial level, thanks in large measure to its lush physical trappings, this amoral tale of multiple murders and betrayals should have been funnier than it is by half and finally becomes just too silly and convoluted for its own good. Appearing out of competition in the official selection in Cannes, pic is far from a festival-type film and looks destined for just so-so B.O. in September general release.
Distinguished most of all by Dante Spinotti’s lustrous cinematography, Stewart Starkin’s deep-dish production design and a witty score by John Ottman, this first comedy from Roland Joffe, a director not hitherto known for his sense of humor, creates an inviting ambience that’s both sexy and larky. Initial scenes are devoted to establishing Sandra (Patricia Arquette) and Ben (Don Johnson) as edgy, provocative lovers, with Sandra getting a particular thrill out of sweaty sessions in locations where they could easily be caught, and Ben going along for the ride.
But Sandra happens to be married to Ben’s younger brother, Jake (Dermot Mulroney), an apparently messed-up young man who is barely clinging to his job at a high-powered L.A. ad agency where Ben helps run the show. At work, the attractive but maladroit Peggy (Mary-Louise Parker) has eyes for Ben, an alley cat by nature who is tiring of Sandra’s sexual pushiness and soon takes advantage of Peggy’s availability.
Off-center tone of the early going is set not only by the shifting sexual dynamics but by the incongruous religious backdrop (hotsy lovers Sandra and Ben put in a lot of time at their church, getting it on there as well) and Sandra’s habit of singing tunes from “The Sound of Music” while meditating on her decidedly unwholesome schemes.
The boom drops 40 minutes in, when Ben goes to see Jake, who’s blown a gasket upon learning that his wife and brother have been carrying on. Suffice it to say that the encounter does not end well for Ben; the first of several hairpin plot turns is that Jake and Sandra have been in cahoots all along to collect on Ben’s $4 million insurance policy, a scheme now complicated by Peggy’s claim that she and Ben were secretly married just three days earlier.
Pic’s focus then shifts to include two police detectives, the cynical pro Rita Pompano (Ellen DeGeneres) and her polar-opposite partner, an ultra-square Mormon named Rollins (Ray McKinnon), who hit the pavement to determine what happened to Ben. The extreme personality contrast between seen-it-all Rita and wide-eyed Rollins generates less comedy than intended: The setup is too obvious, and DeGeneres’ deadpan quips lack the necessary wit and snap.
Without giving up the rest of the game, it’s safe to say that it involves several more unsuspected alliances, both professional and amorous, the engagement of a professional hit man to ape the crimes of a current serial killer, more betrayals and a little blackmail. Most of the usual lurid noir elements come into play in ways that carry a certain undeniable surprise, but that eventually become a bit silly in their contortions. Pic is mild fun for a while, but doesn’t stay good and juicy for the duration.
Arquette has her vampy sexpot act down to a science by now, and struts her stuff with aplomb. Mulroney and Parker, while competent, seem rather like visitors in this devious world, and whatever appeal DeGeneres may have displayed on TV doesn’t register on the bigscreen, at least in this part. The best here is Johnson, looking great and charmingly convincing as a man who takes the path of least resistance with women, to his ultimate peril.