In 1996 Alec Baldwin and Demi Moore starred in “The Juror,” an uninspired thriller (with the unfortunate ad line “There is no defense”) in which she played a single mom blackmailed by his Mafia hitman into swaying the jury she’s on, lest he kill her son. Both actors had just passed the crest of their brief big-screen stardom, though that wasn’t necessarily evident at the time, even if “The Juror” certainly didn’t help keep them at the top.
Two decades later, Baldwin is something of an institution — albeit mostly for TV comedy, not a path one would have anticipated back then — while Moore, though she’s worked sporadically, feels like a missing person in any recent pop-culture census. The difference in their career arcs can be attributed to many things, an obvious one being Hollywood’s greater willingness to grant a second act to male stars who’ve aged out of their initial hunkdom, as opposed to women who outgrow ingenue roles.
It’s safe to say that their pairing in the new film “Blind” isn’t a reprise anyone was clamoring for and won’t stir any great excitement on its own. This slick but muted drama — a first directorial feature for producer Michael Mailer, written by actor/playwright John Buffalo Mailer, both sons of late literary maverick Norman — reunites the actors in a (somewhat) less pulpy-melodramatic context. This time the emphasis is more on midlife romance than suspense. But the amour is as unconvincing as the tension is underdeveloped. The result is a watchable, albeit unsatisfying, vehicle for two stars who’ve now made a pair of movies together in which their skills constitute the main attraction, yet who aren’t particularly well-served by either film.
Moore plays Suzanne Dutchman, first encountered celebrating her 19th wedding anniversary with husband Mark (Dylan McDermott). They’re penthouse-dwelling members of a Manhattan elite, about to suffer a downfall all too familiar to their class. The Feds arm-twist his lawyer associate (James McCafferty) into exposing some high-end financial skullduggery that’s serious enough to get Mark thrown in jail while awaiting trial. Suzanne’s earnest plea that she knew nothing about these doings (though Mark used their mutual accounts as a cover), rings true enough with a judge to limit her to community service for her unknowing complicity.
Thus she finds herself at a center for the blind, volunteering as a reader for crankily incorrigible Bill Oakland (Baldwin). He’s a novelist of moderate renown who lost most of his sight five years ago in a car accident that killed his wife. He still teaches writing in college, which requires another set of eyes to read his students’ stories aloud.
The two get off to a poor start, as he goes out of his way to offend her, recognizing her shyster husband’s last name, while she proves all-too-easily offended. Nonetheless, the program’s administrator (Eden Epstein) isn’t about to let this overdressed socialite abandon court-ordered duties over a personality clash. So the two keep at it, eventually getting past their mutual dislike.
It’s when the grudging pleasure they begin to take in one another’s company turns into something more that “Blind” forsakes its moderate early promise for shaky contrivance. While the lead characters aren’t fully dimensionalized in the script (which is based on a story idea by producer Diane Fisher), the actors attain a certain amiable frisson so long as erudite but semi-insufferable artiste Bill is playfully goading the uptight Suzanne, whom Moore imbues with a refined reserve bordering on resentment. (That Moore’s performance is occasionally a bit stilted, particularly early on, actually works in her character’s favor.) But when Bill commences pitching “Scent of a Woman” woo, and Suzanne eventually succumbs, the dynamic — both in acting and psychological terms — grows much less convincing. The more we’re meant to be swept up in their romantic chemistry, the less it’s evident.
Nor is “Blind” helped by the simultaneous darkening of Mark, who behind bars reveals a sneakiness, jealousy and violence that somehow evaded his wife’s notice until now. McDermott is up to the job, but he’s playing a villain in a near-thriller that occupies little of the runtime. He ends up seeming to exist in a different, fragmentary movie — something considerably more like “The Juror” — awkwardly cobbled onto the main one.
Various supporting characters are more distracting than enriching. These include Epstein, as well as Steven Prescod (as an aspiring writer), Drew Moerlein (as Mark’s own wannabe-protege), Viva Bianca (a predictably backstabbing fellow socialite), and scenarist Mailer as a janitor. The young Mailers surely must have witnessed sufficient Big Apple celebrity, power, talent, striving, ego and excess to make all these character types come alive. Tethered to a central love-story concept that never quite gels, however, none of them quite do.
In the larger scheme of things, Bill is the biggest disappointment: Always a confident, competent screen performer, Baldwin nonetheless can’t elevate the material’s rote movie notion of “serious author” as rude, rascally and able to pull literary quotes from thin air.
While narratively underwhelming, “Blind” is smoothly packaged, its veneer of Manhattan high life amplified by well-chosen locations, Michal Dabal’s attractive widescreen compositions, and a soundtrack filled with lightly jazzy contributions from various musicians.