The inventive Stephan Elliott, helmer of the amusing “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and “Welcome to Woop Woop,” ventures onto thin ice in “Eye of the Beholder,” a mixed-genre detective pic, thriller and love story that shifts gears too often and doesn’t know when to end. Comely co-stars Ewan McGregor and Ashley Judd are a plus, and a fast-moving story with gadgets, guns and action may be a turn-on for genre fans. But the more serious auds that the film clearly aspires to reach, and occasionally merits, will find all that superfluous in unwinding the complicated threads of an intriguing psychological tale.
Based on a novel by Marc Behm (followed closely by Claude Miller in his highly stylized French adaptation with Isabelle Adjani, “Mortelle randonnee”) about a detective who protects a female serial killer because he believes she is his long-lost daughter, “Eye” takes the major liberty of casting youthful McGregor in the lead role of a British Secret Service agent whose wife has deserted him, vanishing with daughter Lucy. This naturally rules out the idea that the murderess Joanna Eris (Judd) is his missing child. Pic’s solution — and major premise — that he associates the two because he is simply crackers, hardly carries the same conviction.
Armed with the latest high-tech spying gizmos and electronically connected to his office through Hilary (pop star k.d. lang, horsing it up in a snappy Miss Moneypenny sendup), the reclusive Eye, as he is called, receives his assignment from the Chief via computer. He is to follow a politician’s son and learn on whom he is spending large sums of money. With all that equipment, the Eye soon finds out it’s Joanna in one of her many disguises. Film takes an exciting turn when she suddenly pulls out a knife and makes Swiss cheese of the son in a tense, well-timed scene filmed from the Eye’s helpless p.o.v. Before he can phone headquarters for help, he has become mesmerized by the seductive killer, who reminds him so much of his lost little girl. Lucy’s pestering voice in his head gives him no peace, urging him to save Joanna.
Here pic changes register and becomes a plane-hopping road movie as the Eye, throwing his job to the wind, embarks on an obsessive chase not to capture Joanna but to spy on her. The love story takes over as he banishes little Lucy’s voice from his head; due to his spying skill, the object of his desire never notices him. A shot of tattered U.S. flags and the Capitol throws out the red herring that America will become the film’s true subject of their coast-to-coast trip, ending in an Alaskan diner called the End of the World. But social commentary is not for the Eye.
Adding element on element, Elliott takes the Eye into ever deeper psychological waters. He eavesdrops on Joanna’s love affair with a wealthy blind man (the noble Patrick Bergin) and learns how her abandonment by her father is the origin of her psychosis. He visits her stern reform school warden (Genevieve Bujold), who’s also in love with the girl, and derails federal police investigations. When he turns his spy camera into a long-range rifle and murders a man out of sheer jealousy, pic reaches a strong psychological climax. Unfortunately, it then plays out three or four more endings of decreasing interest.
McGregor, of recent “Phantom Menace” fame, is a long way from planet Earth as the demented intelligence agent, a role that never chooses between James Bond and Hitchcock, or maybe Gene Hackman in “The Conversation.” (Pic is decked with salutes to classic movies, some of which, like the glass snowflake balls, are way too obvious.) Sultry-cool Judd starts out as an amusingly acidic film noir stereotype, but the Eye’s relentless persecution wears her down until she becomes quite vulnerable and appealing. Jason Priestley has a disagreeable cameo as a macho monster.
Guy Dufaux’s lensing gives the film the surreal, timeless look Elliott aims for in his script. Marius De Vries’ electronic score gets under the skin, while Lizzy Gardiner’s time-bending costumes appropriately run a gamut of periods and styles.