Richard Gere, Laura Linney

Primal Fear offers lots of smart touches and solid performances. But the gap between what this thriller tries to be (a complex portrait of a flawed hero) and what it actually is (a convoluted whodunit) yawns wide.

Directed by Emmy-winning Gregory Hoblit (L.A. Law and NYPD Blue), Fear is about a strutting defense attorney (Gere)—Johnnie Cochran in white-face—who has lost sight of the difference between truth and the illusion he creates in the courtroom. Knowing it'll be a publicity lollapalooza, he defends a young man (Edward Norton, in a riveting debut) charged with murdering Chicago's Roman Catholic archbishop. Although Norton is collared running from the crime scene in blood-spattered clothing, he claims innocence. Soon this shy, stuttering altar boy turns Gere into a believer. Big mistake.

Arrogance is what Gere has always done best and, with his studly swagger, he's darn good. Playing the rival prosecutor who was once his lover, Linney establishes herself as a cracklingly strong presence, a sort of Glenn Close with soft elbows. (R)

Ben Stiller, Téa Leoni

According to the medical literature, the zanies can attack without warning, flooding the brain with farcical plot complications. Let's hope writer-director David O. Russell, who made a striking feature debut with 1994's offbeat Spanking the Monkey, recovers. This one is a wobbly mess, the story of an entomologist (Stiller), adopted as a baby, who tries to track down his biological parents with the help of a social worker (the willowy Leoni). The cross-country scenario takes such preposterous wrong turns that it's like It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World with a self-validation theme.

If Russell has problems with plot, he has none with people. The large, eccentric cast—including George Segal and Mary Tyler Moore as Stiller's adoptive parents, and Lily Tomlin as a dangerous holdover from the '60s—all seem to be in a playful, almost ticklish mood. (R)

Halle Berry, James Belushi

Think of this as an environmentally correct Dangerous Minds: A peppy science teacher (Berry) cajoles an ethnically diverse group of underachieving high-schoolers into believing they can be winners. The kids here are self-described "lolos" (lowly locals) in Hawaii who, with prodding from Berry, design and build a solar-powered car. They win a local race and then compete in a 2,000-mile race across Australia. Along the way they learn about pluck and perseverance. Never again will anyone kick sand in their faces.

No surprises here. But Berry and Belushi (as a shop teacher who goes from doubter to believer) cruise along as if this amiably funky little film was actually going to boost their careers, the teen actors keep their hormones in check, and the cars are cool. (PG)

Richard E. Grant, Samantha Mathis

When a London lawyer must pick up the pieces of his life after his wife dies in childbirth, he takes his infant daughter to the office. She won't stop wailing. So the mail boy loads her onto his cart and wheels her about. It sure beats a soppy pacifier.

It is one of the many fun little surprises scattered like spring bouquets throughout Jack and Sarah. But these bits provide only fleeting pleasure. J & S becomes predictable mush as the lawyer finds himself falling, and vice-versa, for a young American (Mathis) he hires as a nanny.

Grant is both clumsily comic and touching as the new dad, but Mathis grates when called upon to show grit. Eileen Atkins does an amusingly piquant turn as Grant's sympathetic mother-in-law. (R)

>Mr. MovieFone

TO READ THIS, PRESS ONE...

"WHEN I CREATED THIS VOICE, I KNEW it might irritate some people—and it does," says J. Russell Leatherman, 33. The voice is the exuberant, used-car-salesmanesque bellow on MovieFone, where weekly over 1 million Americans dial (777-FILM in most markets) for movie times and advance tickets.

Leatherman's no voice-over specialist. He's the company's president and cofounder. A former TV producer living in Los Angeles, he got annoyed one day in 1989 when he wanted to see a flick but got busy signals on the theater lines. Having learned interactive phone technology from an infomercial he was filming, he came up with the idea for MovieFone. To get started he re-mortgaged his home, but last year ad revenues and ticket service charges brought in $20 million in revenue.

Now the divorced father of two sons spends half his free time saying, "Hello and welcome to MovieFone" at friends' requests. And while, yes, he says he will record answering-machine messages for pals, the message at his own five-bedroom L.A. home is "just a straight, 'Please leave your message.' "

  • Contributors:
  • Leah Rozen,
  • Tom Gliatto,
  • Allison Lynn.