TV maestro David E. Kelley goes fishing in feature film waters with “Lake Placid,” and comes back with nothing for supper. A project for which the term writeoff was invented, this lamer-than-lame attempt at stirring up the summer movie scene with a scary creature-in-the-depths scenario will do nothing to harm the careers of those involved, but it certainly will not help. Sure to be gobbled alive by the ferocious competition, “Lake Placid” will sink without a trace and pose no threat to that other upcoming “Jaws” wannabe, “Deep Blue Sea.” Kelley’s legion of TV fans may find his new pic more tolerable when it hits the small screen, where the curiously brief running time, ludicrous premise and slim thrills will pose less of a problem.
The ultra-abbreviated nature of pic suggests major post-production problems; first tip-off is an early, uncredited appearance by Adam Arkin, longtime regular on Kelley’s “Chicago Hope” series, who comes and goes so fast as to barely register. More serious by far, however, is the absence of a genuine third act containing the kind of roller-coaster thrills that this genre demands and that would be expected from vet horror helmer Steve Miner. To be sure, Kelley’s Emmy-winning brand of off-kilter humor and cockeyed affection for rural folk is on display, but his attempt here to blend the citified angst of “Ally McBeal” (co-star Bridget Fonda was Kelley’s first choice as that series’ lead) with the countrified absurdisms of “Picket Fences,” plus bits out of the Peter Benchley playbook, doesn’t hold water.
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The mayhem starts promptly on a glassy lake in northern Maine (which the locals insist on calling Lake Placid, even though that moniker has already been taken by the more famous New York ski spot), as Sheriff Hank Keough (Brendan Gleeson) trolls for a mysterious underwater creature with a Fish & Game diver, whose incessant wisecracks are naturally rewarded by his being chomped in half.
Boston paleontologist Kelly Scott (Fonda) is having a hard time getting over the fact that b.f. Arkin is dumping her when he dumps something else in her lap: She is to go to the lake to study a tooth extracted from the diver’s torso. Suspecting that she’s being pushed out of the way for new lovers, Fonda goes anyway, though she despises the outdoors, camping and dumb rural guys in particular; she also suspiciously displays a near-perfect facsimile of Ally McBeal-like neuroses.
One rural guy who isn’t dumb is Fish & Game studmuffin Jack Wells (Bill Pullman), who is essentially Tom Skerritt’s sheriff hero in “Picket Fences” transplanted to the Northeast. Once Kelly examines the tooth and finds it to be “ancient” and much like that of a crocodile, her job is done. But she wants to stay on, “because I want to be a part of this.” “This” is hunting down the croc, or whatever is out there, but matters — and the movie — zoom quickly out of control with the arrival by private copter of eccentric millionaire and croc aficionado Hector Cyr (Oliver Platt).
Soon, Jack is having to contend not only with Kelly’s whining, the endlessly unfunny spatting between Hector and Sheriff Hank, and the nutty widow who lives on the lake, but with a fresh wave of attacks by the creature, which turns out to be a 30-foot crocodile that has managed to swim all the way from its warm natural habitat in Asia. Hector and Kelly want the mega-amphibian captured, while Jack and Sheriff Hank want to fire away, and this standard conflict is given perfunctory treatment.
In the pic’s one startling action scene, the big croc gulps down a hulking grizzly, but all too quickly for an actioner, the beast is soon captured. A coda involving a widow (Betty White) and her over-affection for the crocodiles does nothing to give “Lake Placid” anything like a satisfying conclusion, and no amount of self-conscious eccentricity or joking around can make up for it.
Whatever attracted fine actors Pullman, Fonda, Gleeson and Platt to the script is now gone, as they all search desperately for their characters. Pullman is all jaw and smile here, employing little of his natural irony while barely concealing his actor’s puzzlement at the plot’s gaping holes. Fonda fares the worst with an irritating role that embodies all the pic’s problems. Gleeson could well be wondering if this vacant, silly assignment is his reward for his epochal work in last year’s “The General.” Not for the first time, Platt’s clownish mannerisms get the better of him in exchanges that hopelessly ape the funny scenes in “Jaws” involving Richard Dreyfuss.
Pic’s widescreen look and d.p. Daryn Okada’s facility with both big landscapes and churning underwater action, as well as John Ottman’s serious-minded score, belie the throwaway nature of the material. Refraining from endowing his creatures with fanciful or humanoid qualities, f/x whiz Stan Winston delivers anatomically correct crocs whose realism still doesn’t make us buy that they’d ever get to Maine. Other tech credits are leak-proof.