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The Operator

"The Operator" is a mostly slick, intelligent psychological thriller/modern morality tale flawed by occasional lapses of subtlety and a central performance that veers just to the wrong side of empathetic. If not for the virtually unknown cast, Jon Dichter's first feature would stand a good chance of making a clear connection with a distributor. Still, pic indicates a promising future for writer-director.

Cast:
Gary Wheelan - Michael Laurence Janice Wheelan - Christa Miller Vernon Woods - Brion James Doc - Stephen Tobolowsky The Operator - Jacqueline Kim Mrs. Sloan - Frances Bay

“The Operator” is a mostly slick, intelligent psychological thriller/modern morality tale flawed by occasional lapses of subtlety and a central performance that veers just to the wrong side of empathetic. If not for the virtually unknown cast, Jon Dichter’s first feature would stand a good chance of making a clear connection with a distributor. Still, pic indicates a promising future for writer-director.

Attorney Gary Wheelan (stage vet Michael Laurence) seems to have it all: a loving wife, a luxury car, a fat paycheck and a surplus of adoring girlfriends. But he’s also a heel, a smug narcissist accustomed to getting what he wants and whose callous behavior prompts one mistress to complain, “I feel like a speed bump.”

It follows that when Gary falls from his lofty position, his comeuppance is his own fault — he brutally insults the wrong person. Disgruntled with his phone service, he cusses out an operator (Jacqueline Kim) with such vitriolic fervor that the badly shaken woman resolves to make him pay. With the help of an apparently omniscient computer system, she accesses Gary’s bank account, credit card companies and home phone line. Bit by bit, she wreaks havoc on his meticulously organized life, ruining his marriage, his credit rating and his reputation.

It’s a pleasure to watch Gary as he realizes that his life is slipping from his control. With his character’s disbelief yielding to desperation, Laurence is at his strongest: He treads water frantically as the rising tide of his own misdeeds threatens to engulf him.

And because the operator doesn’t tell Gary her long-range plan, he’s never sure exactly what he’s up against. And neither is the audience, entirely: Dichter only shows the operator in profile or silhouette. We do know, however, that she’s Asian, which strikes a vaguely xenophobic chord since it makes the pic appear to buy into the cliché of the enigmatic and unknowable Asian woman.

In addition to the foregrounded story of Gary’s infidelities, his marriage and the meddling operator, Dichter deftly weaves in three subplots that ultimately play into the operator’s overall plan, two involving ethically questionable legal matters and one concerning his gambling habit and mounting debt to his bookie (ubiquitous character actor Stephen Tobolowsky, in a refreshingly non-nerdy part).

Dichter’s ending is clever, to be sure, but there’s a sense of rushing to a conclusion that ties things up a little too tidily. Gary’s 11th-hour redemption feels shallow, as it’s a little late to turn him into a good guy, and Laurence is less convincing when Gary tries to regain his integrity.

Still, pic refuses to vilify Gary, and Dichter is more interested in nuance than in pure good and evil. Script sports a few too many lectures about or allusions to karma, and is awash in aphorisms: You reap what you sow; what goes around comes around, etc. But this solid effort is marked by sharp production design, brisk direction and lensing that plays up the transparent veneer of Gary’s outwardly perfect existence.

The Operator

Production: A Black Wolf Prods. presentation. Produced by Jon Dichter. Co-producers, Doug Bruce, Betty Buckley. Executive producer, Jay Barnet. Directed, written by Jon Dichter.

Crew: Camera (FotoKem color), Bert Guthrie; editors, Michael Coleman, Darren Kloomok; music, Victor Zupanc; production designers, David Sewell McCann, Kara Sutherlin; set decorator, Sandrine Junod; costume designer, Kari Perkins; sound (Dolby SR), Michael Haines; assistant director, Joey Stewart; casting, Jeffrey Passero, Elizabeth Hayden-Passero. Reviewed at Santa Barbara Film Festival, March 4, 2000. (Also in SXSW Festival.) Running time: 102 MIN.

With: Gary Wheelan - Michael Laurence Janice Wheelan - Christa Miller Vernon Woods - Brion James Doc - Stephen Tobolowsky The Operator - Jacqueline Kim Mrs. Sloan - Frances Bay

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