Cooking Without Gas

The Chamber
Directed by James Foley. Screenplay by William Goldman and Chris Reese, from the novel by John Grisham. Starring Chris O'Donnell, Gene Hackman, Faye Dunaway, and Lela Rochon. Continuing at area theaters.

The Chamber as a novel is both an inane potboiler and a different kettle of Grisham. A sprawling, roughly 700-page account of a lawyer's quest to keep his racist granddad from getting gassed for blowing Jewish twin brothers to bits (they were 5 years old), it acquires a crawling fascination as an attorney's version of a "police procedural" -- a legal procedural. Ideal for reading in noisy waiting rooms (or for listening to on cassette while power-walking), it takes you slowly (negative spin) and patiently (positive spin) through the maneuvering that surrounds a capital case. In the process it turns up details and sidelights that resemble comic-book Kafka: the Supreme Court employing a full-time death clerk who hectors death row attorneys like an officious Jiminy Cricket; pros at the capital-punishment game routinely referring to last-minute pleas as "gangplank appeals." The supposed human drama of a California-bred, Chicago-based legal eagle facing his Mississippi family's brutal, bigoted past is one more tiresome tale of naivete shattered and evil partially redeemed. But the spectacle of his learned boss engineering fake calls from a cell phone in order to sway the governor's public opinion data -- now, that's entertainment.

Unfortunately, after complaining for years about Grisham's boring, innocent heroes, I've belatedly realized that they're essential to best-sellerhood and crucial for attracting the likes of Tom Cruise, that morph Matthew McConaughey, and here Chris O'Donnell. Grisham's freshly certified barristers with their top professional training are ideal fantasy figures for second-generation yuppies who've been taught that the be-all and end-all is keeping their noses clean. And no hook could be more obvious than pitting these exemplars of "playing by the rules" against figures that reek of the unexamined life -- you know, the kind of life that is supposedly not worth living.

Gene Hackman easily dominates the early going. When the movie divides audiences' sympathies between Adam (O'Donnell), an all-American kid with an infuriating Ultra Brite smile, and Sam, an unrepentant reprobate with a yen for Eskimo Pies, they naturally gravitate toward Sam. And Hackman the wily character-actor gives Sam a warm, greasy presence, his eyes flaring with delight in his own scurrilous invective and his straggly hair curling out from under his black watch-cap like the weeds sprouting from his brain. For whole sequences, Hackman takes the slimy bit between his teeth, pulling off an American rural-ignoramus version of Jeremy Irons' ambiguous smarty-pants in Reversal of Fortune.

Yet eventually he's got to become a self-lacerating paterfamilias, loyal to clan, not Klan. And Hackman fails to make the leap. Though he boasts a prime moment singing a nervous little folk song while Sam waits in his cell with his grandson, the actor has pitched his opening scenes too high (in intensity) and too lowdown (in demeanor) to be persuasive overall. He practices a weird reverse-ingratiation: He pleases the crowd, then befuddles it.

Part of the reason Hackman initially connects with the audience is that Sam owns up to his grungy no-goodness while Adam keeps struggling to find his saving grace. Sam never denies that he blew up a Jewish civil rights lawyer's office -- he avows only that he didn't intend to kill anyone. (In the book, Grisham lays out from the git-go that the ultimate villain is a mad bomber in Sam's Klan-sponsored terrorist cell; the moviemakers withhold that fact and milk it for spurious suspense.) As the story goes on, most of what you learn about Sam -- he murdered a black handyman, he joined lynch mobs -- paints a worsening picture of him. When Adam strives to defend him, you feel like an antediluvian law-and-order advocate confronted with a bleeding-heart do-gooder. Adam uses the sort of semienvironmental, semigenetic argument ordinarily favored by racists: Sam had to be a hater because he descends from original Klan stock. After the fifth or sixth flatulent discussion of why Sam should be gassed, an exasperated fellow behind me blurted out, "Because he's guilty!" Close to the final countdown, Sam finally lets on that he's a human being, indicating regret over white-supremacist comments to a kind black guard and writing letters of apology to his victims' families. As with Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking, what we witness is a foxhole conversion. Would Sam have bared his soul without time on death row and the emotional intervention of our man Adam? Today's anti-death-penalty sagas backfire dramatically: They depict cruel and unusual punishment as a sure-fire source of spiritual salvation.

Since Grisham wrote this book as if it were a nonfiction novel, the screenwriters, William Goldman and Chris Reese, punch in the overtime. They sweat to inject box-office elements of romance and tension. They transform a governor's assistant (Lela Rochon) into Adam's helpmate and potential love interest (a rotten plum for pretty Rochon, who too often has to look harassed and uncomfortable); they allow Adam's alcoholic, well-married aunt (an out-there, unmoored Faye Dunaway) to reach a positively fiftysomething closure with her explosive pop. By playing peekaboo with the mad bomber (Raymond Barry) and gently manipulating his character, they broaden Grisham's indictment of Southern racism to include White Citizens Councils and a state-sanctioned Sovereignty Commission. They'd have been better off crafting a film equivalent of Grisham's unassuming, sloppy-reporter prose. A screenwriter friend who worked on one Grisham adaptation said the tighter he tried to make it, the worse it got. In this case, sharpening the plot only makes the social-political dynamics more confusing. It should be the pinnacle of black comedy to see Klanners protest an execution and presumed left-wingers support it; too bad the irony gets lost in the tumult.

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