It is 1978 in the City of Angels and the hard-drinking washed-up sleuth Carson Phillips is having another boozy day through its atmospheric streets. There is a hint of innate coolness and self-deprecation in his elongated voiceover intro — you might even briefly mistake Carson, played by a one-note John Travolta, for a Philip Marlowe or Jake Gittes type. But “The Poison Rose,” an astonishingly listless neo-noir wannabe from director George Gallo (writer of 1988’s “Midnight Run”), is not the deliberately poor “Chinatown” imitation it starts off as — that could have been perversely daring, maybe even somewhat entertaining. It in fact becomes something a lot worse, when Carson heads to Galveston, Texas, in search of a missing person, at which point, viewers are taken hostage by this mix of mysterious exes, confusing accents, and desperately labored plotting.
It all starts promisingly enough, with an attractive femme dressed in a seductive pose and deep plunge walking into Carson’s Los Angeles office and throwing money at a family problem. This prospective client’s old aunt appears to reside at a reputable Galveston sanitarium, but hasn’t been in touch with anyone in a while. And that’s just the kind of thing Carson admits to have a weakness for: “a beautiful woman with a sad story.” Because she can’t trust any of the crooked locals, the Faye Dunaway surrogate desires to hire our star quarterback turned private eye to do the snooping around among townsfolk who keep their guns handy in nightclubs and love to gossip under moss-covered trees.
Enter the peculiar Dr. Miles Mitchell of the Texan sanitarium, played by a flamboyant Brendan Fraser, who seems to be the only actor here having some fun with his part. Excuse after implausible excuse, Dr. Mitchell tries to keep Carson away from the patient he insists is at the facility, but underestimates the nosy PI’s resourcefulness. Meanwhile, Morgan Freeman’s high-powered businessman/nightclub owner Doc has a poorly explained, but ultimately inconsequential bone to pick with Carson. And Doc isn’t the only acquaintance from the past with old scores to settle. There is also Jayne Hunt (Famke Janssen, looking bored, like almost everyone else in the ensemble), Carson’s old flame who would just about do anything to protect her young daughter Rebecca (Ella Bleu Travolta) from the abusive footballer Rebecca is married to.
What turns “The Poison Rose” into a strained whodunit is an exhaustively signposted development, involving the grim death of Rebecca’s haughty husband during a much-publicized football game. You are guaranteed to care less and less about the mystery salad here with every possible murder suspect and added layer of unconvincing suspense. And while the resolution that ties together all the loose ends is borderline predictable, it’s almost worth witnessing for the villainous Fraser’s over-the-top breakdown alone and one hilariously artificial scene in which the two Travoltas awkwardly dunk donuts in coffee.
The smoky mood set by cinematographer Terry Stacey is fittingly languid and the generically noir-esque score by Aldo Shllaku and Marcus Sjowall is sensual enough to take notice, while some of the afterthought period details are lazily (and in the case of Famke Janssen’s hairdo, inaccurately) administered. Still, the most notable thing about “The Poison Rose” is how little Richard Salvatore’s script (adapted from his own novel, co-written by Jay Brandon) tries to be anything but a series of clichés amid shady criminals, secretive femme fatales, and long-lost daughters.
For everyone involved, “The Poison Rose” looks like an easy paycheck they don’t have to break a sweat for. For the rest of us, it’s just a sad, unimaginative affair in which an impressive lineup of talented names goes to waste before our eyes. Carson signs off from the story likening goodbyes to death. No offense to Travolta, but you might be surprised just how alive you will suddenly feel, once you part with Gallo’s film and all its lifeless characters.