Picks and Pans Review: Palmetto

updated 03/02/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/02/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

Woody Harrelson, Elisabeth Shue, Gina Gershon, Michael Rapaport

January and February are the months when savvy moviegoers either catch up with all the fab films that opened at Christmastime (this winter, that means Titanic, As Good as It Gets and Oscar and Lucinda) or swear off popcorn. During these two months, Hollywood studios dump the ho-hum stuff that has been sitting on their shelves a while and for which they rightly hold few expectations.

Just such a movie is Palmetto, a noirish thriller that quickly becomes as swampy as the humid Florida town of its setting and title. Harrelson plays an ex-newspaper reporter who, upon his release from the clink after serving two years in prison on a trumped-up criminal charge, plunges into seriously bad behavior. He agrees to help a millionaire's sexy wife (Shue, vamping about in short skirts that cling like Saran Wrap) with a kidnapping scheme. She and her teenage step-daughter plan to fake the girl's kidnapping, and they want Harrelson to make a threatening phone call demanding $500,000 in ransom. For letting his fingers do the wrong-side-of-the-law walking, he'll earn a cool $50,000.

Nothing, of course, goes according to plan. Double crosses abound, and Harrelson soon finds himself in a dilly of a pickle. Not that viewers still hunkered down in the theater will care. Palmetto, haphazardly directed by the usually interesting Volker Schlondorff (The Tin Drum), is the sort of movie in which both the characters and the plot end up making so little sense that you find yourself wondering if crucial scenes have gone missing. If so, surely they are now in a better, happier place.

Harrelson, after his bravura turn in The People vs. Larry Flynt and his hilariously stoned-out cameo in Wag the Dog, can't seem to get a bead on his character here and instead concentrates on looking hot and bothered. Shue way overdoes her steamy femme fatale bit but at least seems to be keeping herself amused. (R)

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