The immaculately crafted “Malice” is a virtual scrapbook of elements borrowed from other suspense pix, but no less enjoyable for being so familiar. Pic should tickle audiences who want to be entertained without being challenged, and will probably drum up healthy business for Columbia and Castle Rock.
The film starts slowly, with college dean Bill Pullman concerned over the mysterious rapist who’s attacked several students in the sleepy New England college town, and worrying about the mysterious abdominal pains plaguing his wife (Nicole Kidman).
Enter polished, self-assured surgeon Alec Baldwin, who is new to the area and moves into the third floor of the house Pullman and Kidman are restoring. (The script never addresses why a presumably highly paid doctor would feel the need to share a house with virtual strangers, but if the filmmakers didn’t worry about this, neither should you.)
After about 40 minutes, the pic shifts into high gear when Baldwin performs emergency surgery on Kidman, which kicks off a series of revelations, plot reversals and character twists.
Script by Aaron Sorkin and Scott Frank, from a story by Sorkin and Jonas McCord, touches on such big topics as fear of doctors, but doesn’t explore them, choosing instead to simply give the audience a piece of escapism.
To its credit, pic takes the high road in not going for cheap effects — though a thriller, there’s not one big scream in the whole movie — which may frustrate some horror fans, but the plotting, and, especially, the execution maintain interest.
“Malice” makes nods to specific films, such as “Marnie” and “Pacific Heights, ” and collects a lot of elements familiar from recent suspense pix: the sinister janitor, the bloody rubber gloves operating room scenes, grappling bodies crashing through the banister, as well as familiar story twists that won’t be repeated here.
Some of the plotting gets plodding — bits involving a mysterious neighbor and a hypodermic needle are particularly dubious — but on the whole, the script does what it set out to do, and if the filmmakers didn’t worry about these things, neither should you.
“Malice” boasts a polished crew — scorer Jerry Goldsmith, lenser Gordon Willis, editor David Bretherton, production designer Philip Harrison and soundman Robert Eber all do first-class work.
Kudos to director Harold Becker and his producer partners Rachel Pfeffer and Charles Mulvehill for assembling a classy, tight package and making it work so well.
The actors play amusing variations on past roles — Baldwin as the self-assured charmer with dark and fragile undercurrents (as in “Miami Blues”); Kidman as the threatened wife with reservoirs of strength (as in “Dead Calm”); Peter Gallagher as an unctuous lawyer (“sex, lies, and videotape”); and Bill Pullman as a likable, confused schlub (just about everything he’s ever been in).
All the thesps, including George C. Scott and Anne Bancroft in brief cameos, are fine, with Baldwin and Kidman the standouts.
After listless performances in such pics as “Days of Thunder” and “Far and Away,” Aussie Kidman, who here uses a flawless American accent, proves her strengths as an actress, and Baldwin mixes menace, sex and humor in another terrific performance.
Scripter William Goldman is listed as “consultant,” a credit that’s unexplained. But if Mr. Goldman didn’t worry about it, neither should you.