NEW YORK–This Judd Nelson vehicle about political intrigue and naive trust wants desperately to be taken seriously as a timely part of the election-year debate. But slipshod dialogue and the cursory look of its lighting, sound and staging reduce it to parody. “Primary Motive” is headed for the video shelf after brief regional theatrical release.
The Boston-based drama follows a Kennedy School of Government grad (Nelson) into the halls of political power, where his retired congressman dad (Malachi Throne) gets him a job as press secretary to straitlaced gubernatorial candidate Frank Converse.
His opponent is a con man (Richard Jordan) with a falsified record and a checkered family life.
Nelson’s girlfriend (Justine Bateman) goes undercover as a volunteer in the Jordan camp to dig up dirt. Nelson leaks several lies to seedy reporter John Savage, who quickly puts the candidate on the defensive.
The corrupt Jordan successfully makes it all look like a press smear, however , and Bateman gets sucked in by his slippery charm.
The actors are in trouble with ham-fisted dialogue that keeps director Daniel Adams’ good intentions from becoming more than caricature. Particularly weak is a seduction scene where Bateman croons to Jordan, “Come here, lover boy,” and slips onto the couch in an inviting pose. Earnestly played scenes are only slightly more convincing.
Nelson reprises his portrayal as intense, charming rogue, but he fails to make it work here. The hard-working Jordan turns in a manic performance, while Sally Kirkland, whose role as Jordan’s wife is no more than a foil for her husband’s evil rantings, looks uncomfortable with nothing to do but break down.
Savage’s rumpled reporter is cartoonish, but real comic relief is supplied by a tough Joe Grifasi as Nelson’s dirty-tricks mentor.
On the tech side, the project looks hurried. The sound is flat and tinny and the lighting often looks like an afterthought.
The Boston and Luxembourg sets are varied enough, but their strictly low-budget look takes away from the grandeur that seems to be Adams’ goal. Costumes, hair and makeup were not a priority here, giving an uneven impression that distracts from the story. A brooding score creeps in whenever the shady candidate delivers a threatening monologue.