The devil is a woman — specifically, a svelte Jennifer Love Hewitt — in “Shortcut to Happiness,” Alec Baldwin’s years-on-the-shelf update of “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” Filmed in 2001, then waylaid by investor bankruptcies and other infernal torments, the result, like so many troubled A-list productions, is less compelling than all the behind-the-scenes Sturm und Drang. Even Baldwin, who waived his directing credit in favor of the pseudonymous Harry Kirkpatrick, has warned fans to stay away. Following a perfunctory theatrical release (in six U.S. markets not including Gotham or L.A.), pic will take its own shortcut to cable and homevideo purgatory.
Stephen Vincent Benet’s classic short story, previously brought to the screen in an Oscar-winning 1941 version directed by William Dieterle, follows a luckless New Hampshire farmer named Jabez Stone, whose fortunes improve markedly after he signs a contract with a certain Mr. Scratch. But Stone comes to regret his decision and ultimately takes old Scratch to court with the help of the passionate advocate Webster (a fictionalized version of the famed antebellum American statesman).
“Shortcut,” whose screenplay is credited to the eclectic triumvirate of novelist Pete Dexter, “Dreamgirls” helmer Bill Condon and actress-playwright Nancy Cassaro, preserves Benet’s character names but transposes the setting to present-day Manhattan, where Stone (Baldwin) is now the archetypal struggling fiction writer and Webster (Anthony Hopkins) is the powerful publishing magnate to whom Stone unsuccessfully sends his manuscript.
Following one particularly demoralizing day, in which he is fired from his job working retail, learns a friend (Dan Aykroyd) has just been signed to a three-book deal, and has his laptop stolen, Stone is all too primed for the temptations of pic’s distaff devil (Hewitt), who shows up in a va-va-voom magenta trenchcoat and seals Stone’s soul-bartering contract not with his signature, but with a full-throated tongue kiss. Literally overnight, Stone lands the interest of a junior Webster editor (Kim Cattrall, playing even more vixenish than Hewitt) and finds himself catapulted to the bestseller list.
Stone’s success buys him many things, including an Upper West Side penthouse where gorgeous babes spoon-feed him on the floor of his gourmet kitchen. Yet, as in “The Family Man” and other self-flagellating cautionary tales about the vacuity of fortune and fame, the viewer is meant to believe that, in spite of all this, Stone remains fundamentally unfulfilled inside. His books may make a mint and win awards, but they garner terrible reviews — something, it would seem, even Scratch’s black magic is at a loss to effect. The “soul,” we’re told, has gone out of Stone’s writing, but excepting a brief, purplish excerpt heard early on, “Shortcut to Happiness” is void of evidence that Stone possesses any talent before or after entering his devil’s bargain.
Baldwin’s casting of himself in the lead — six years younger and trimmer than in his recent screen and tabloid appearances — feels like an act of false modesty, given that the Stone of pic’s early sections is supposed to be a failure with the opposite sex. Pic isn’t foolish enough to entertain any such illusions about Hewitt, but despite the actress’ appealing presence, she offers a fairly one-note reading on the role that will do little to rival anyone’s memory of Walter Huston’s exuberantly playful turn in the 1941 version — or, for that matter, of Elizabeth Hurley in the similar-themed “Bedazzled” remake.
Only top-billed Hopkins, who at times must have wondered if he were still trapped inside “Meet Joe Black,” seems a natural fit for his part, though pic barely affords him any screen time until the climactic courtroom scene, which takes place, for reasons never fully explained, in a ghostly rural village. There, instead of being tried (as in the original story) before a jury of the eternally damned, Stone’s case is heard by a panel of deceased literary titans (including Truman Capote, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway), which so badly distorts the meaning of the sequence that it’s impossible to know how Baldwin intended it to be perceived.
Pic’s age is evident in the presence of two performers — George Plimpton (one of several Gotham lit-world icons who cameo as themselves) and “Late Show with David Letterman” regular Calvert DeForest (as a bailiff in the courtroom scenes) — who have since died. Meanwhile, some Internet resources credit actors John Savage and Jason Patric among pic’s cast, though neither thesp is credited or appears in the final print. Tech package, which includes lensing by “Midnight Cowboy” d.p. Adam Holender, is competent but undistinguished, while Baldwin, like so many thesp-helmers, lacks an instinctive sense of how to place and move the camera.