To name a movie Don’t Say a Word, film director Gary Fleder was asking for trouble. He had to have known the audience might be confused as to what the phrase was referring to – a request for no talking in the theater or a plea to critics repulsed by this misguided movie.
The plot sounds promising. Don’t Say a Word (20th Century Fox) follows a rich, happy New York psychiatrist, Dr. Nathan Conrad (Michael Douglas), as he thinks up a way to save his daughter Jessie (Skye McCole Bartusiak) from kidnappers. But the movie heads downhill when even the setup comes off cliche.
Before Conrad’s daughter is nabbed, the audience learns all about the doctor and his perfect life: his young wife and her perfectly sculpted eyebrows, his uptown practice and his unchallenging patients who include a teenage boy caught stealing underwear from the girl’s locker room. Not only is Conrad wealthy, handsome and secure, he takes time out of his busy day to make his wife breakfast in bed and read “Horton Hears a Hoo” to his daughter.
It’s no surprise, then, when “his whole world is turned upside down.” Someone might say the guy’s asking for it. That someone is Elisabeth Burrows (Brittany Murphy). Murphy’s performance as the fried-chicken loving psycho in Girl, Interrupted, proves to be good experience for her role as another deranged young woman. In order to keep his daughter alive, Conrad must convince this mental case to tell him a six-digit number. The challenge comes from Burrows’ status as a homicidal maniac with schizophrenic tendencies.
Through the entire ordeal, Conrad may not say a single word to the police if he wants his daughter back in one piece – the reason for the movie title.
It is a strange, unique premise for a film, but Fleder (Kiss the Girls) is inconsistent.
Murphy plays Burrows well, with a precise acting style. The slapping sound of her bare feet against the mental hospital’s cement floor is chilling. But, Douglas (Traffic) does a poor job playing a mastermind psychiatrist. He is unconvincing as a doctor and drags the movie down. Jennifer Esposito (Summer of Sam) tries her best as the detective married to her work, but she suffers from the overall poor quality of script and plot.
The key problem is the lack of quirkiness. The setting and camera angles seem too normal. Fleder ends the story in a strange and interesting locale, but he should have started there, too. A spooky script requires a spooky setting and for this movie, it’s just not scary enough.
There is a lot to say about Don’t Say a Word. Characters appear out of nowhere – such as Oliver Platt who plays Dr. Klaven, an old friend of Conrad – and then disappear into thin air. Other characters are undeveloped – including Conrad’s wife who is played by an excellent actor, Famke Janssen (Made) -and seem to be there just for show.
Don’t Say a Word is an ambitious idea for a movie, but in the end there’s not much to say that’s actually positive.
Don’t Say a Word is in theaters Friday.