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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

What Lies Beneath (review)

Moldy Old Ghost Story

In the opening moments of What Lies Beneath, Michelle Pfeiffer (played by the gorgeous Michelle Pfeiffer) has just finished a bath in her Martha Stewart-perfect bathroom, complete with enormous claw-foot tub. She, standing before the sink, plugs her hair dryer into the wall socket, conveniently located within an arm’s length of the tub, which is draining of the bathwater. Director Robert Zemeckis (as himself) lets his camera linger on the dryer, the electrical outlet, the tub. The dryer, the outlet, the tub. The dryer, the outlet, the tub.

I leaned to my friend and said , “I bet you $1 million dollars that before the film is over, that hair dryer is gonna end up in that tub.”

“No bet,” he replied.

Smart guy.
If there’s a lit candle onscreen in What Lies Beneath, you can bet you’re gonna see its flame extinguish… all by itself! If someone walks backward down a flight of stairs, you can bet that someone is gonna bump into something nasty. If someone’s on the left edge of the frame looking toward the right, you can bet Zemeckis is gonna pan left to reveal a boogeyman approaching from behind. Every single moment meant to be frightening is telegraphed from ten miles out, leaving you plenty of time to relax and try to pick out all the psychological thrillers that were ransacked to produce this incessantly dull film: Ah, there’s Rear Window! And here’s Psycho! Oh, it’s The Sixth Sense!

Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Prince of Egypt) and Norman Spencer (Harrison Ford: Random Hearts, Six Days Seven Nights) live a perfect life in a huge house on a lake in Vermont. The lake is where the What that Lies Beneath is lying beneath, more telegraphing cinematography tells us. What the What is soon becomes glaringly clear, too, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Their bedroom is bigger than my apartment, and faces a neighboring house, from which they can listen to the couple next door moaning their heads off as they… you know. It also allows Claire to spy on them when she gets it into her pretty little head that the husband has killed the wife. (Rear Window: check.)

Did Betty Friedan write this flick? No: it was Sarah Kernochan (with Clark Gregg, though he gets the only screen credit), who wrote the delightfully retro All I Wanna Do. Beneath is retro, too, but in the same uncomfortable way that avocado-green kitchen appliances are. When Claire freaks out, all alone all day in that big, creaking house, thinking the neighbor has done in his wife and witnessing all sorts of spooky stuff in her own house, Norman tells her she’s overreacting — she’s being the typically irrational woman. It’s not like she’s any different from all the other women around her, after all: When she tells one female friend that her house is haunted, the friend replies, “I completely believe in all that.” Of course she does — she’s a girl in this movie. And Claire’s best friend, Jody (Diana Scarwid), who employs, in all seriousness, the services of a psychic, nevertheless laughs at the idea of using a Ouija board to contact the spirit Claire thinks is inhabiting her house — so not only is Jody infuriatingly irrational, she’s infuriatingly inconsistent, too. Just like a girl. Claire’s female intuition is correct, natch, so her irrationality is vindicated in the end…. and Norman, surely, will be punished for his unthinking dismissal of her female way of seeing the world, right?

(Since when are Ouija boards scary, anyway? Zemeckis sure thinks they are, but maybe that’s only because he’s an icky boy. Twelve-year-old girls use Ouija boards to try to spook their girlfriends at slumber parties. By the time you’re 13, Ouija boards cease to be frightening. But this entire movie is down on a Babysitter’s Club level.)

Claire doesn’t work — she gave up her career as a cellist when she married Norman — and now that their daughter has gone away to college, well, might Claire be suffering from an “empty-nest episode”? She tells her shrink (the criminally wasted Joe Morton: The Astronaut’s Wife) so… or is it just that she’s vying for attention from her workaholic husband? Is she invisible to Norman? Isn’t this what The Feminine Mystique was all about? Did I miss the whole time-travel sequence in which Claire journeyed from the 1970s to the 21st century and missed the entire consciousness-raising women went through in the interim? No, I didn’t. Musty old movie? You’re soaking in it.

Oh, and here’s the perfect 70s feminist “ironic” take on marriage: The title of the film doesn’t just refer to something resting under something else (still coming to that), but what falsehoods — see, get it? lies — hover under the veneer of the “perfect” marriage. We know Norman is the “perfect husband,” because he’s Harrison Ford and still looks damn good considering the fact he’s bordering on geezerhood, and also because the film’s trailers and advertising tell us so: “He was the perfect husband until his one mistake followed him home.” He cheated — the rat — and now it’s payback time. (Fatal Attraction: check.) See, the mistress’s ghost is haunting Claire… and I have no compunctions whatsoever “revealing” this because the marketing of this film has done it for me, even though it might have been the one halfway twisty twist Beneath might otherwise have had.

So: If you can’t tell from this what the What is that Lies Beneath, and who put the What there, you need to get out of the house more. But don’t worry if you can’t, because Zemeckis (Contact, Forrest Gump) will telegraph that for you, too.

Surely, I imagined as I endured this rote, passionless, just-plain-boring flick, there’s a big, Sixth Sense-style shocker coming at the end of the film — it could be the only justification for making me sit through what was turning out to be so trite and obvious a story. I spent a good deal of the interminable running time of What Lies Beneath trying to come up with as many different ways this could go, and lemme tell you, I had some doozies, some real cool-spooky mind-blowing stuff — Zemeckis should have called me for a rewrite of the script. But there’s no payoff, except perhaps that a bunch of agents are hitting the fan as we speak.

Remember when Harrison Ford had a career? God, those were the days.

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MPAA: rated PG-13 for terror/violence, sensuality and brief language

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

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