Picks and Pans Main: Screen

updated 10/02/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/02/2000 01:00AM

Under Suspicion

Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Thomas Jane, Monica Bellucci

At police headquarters on a small, unnamed Caribbean island, Police Capt. Victor Benezet (Freeman) and Henry Hearst (Hackman), a suave, wealthy attorney, stare each other down across an interview room. As major players on this island, each has known the other for decades, and neither can quite believe that the cop has good reason to think the lawyer raped and murdered two adolescent girls.

Seeing that Benezet is serious, Hearst says almost jestingly, "We're going man to man now, are we?"

Actor to actor is more like it. In Under Suspicion the equally formidable Hackman and Freeman focus their first-rate talents on second-rate material. Watching these two old pros (who also serve as co-executive producers) circle each other onscreen, bobbing and weaving and then socking it to each other in scene after scene, one keeps wishing the movie itself were worthier of their skills.

More psychological thriller than crime drama, Suspicion takes place during a single evening as the cop grills his suspect about the killings. The two men are a study in contrasts: Freeman's policeman is a dedicated public servant whose commitment to his job has cost him his wife and family; Hackman's lawyer is a self-confident mogul whose portfolio includes a sexy young wife (Bellucci) and an opulent villa. Over the course of the night, each man will face up to his prejudices and preconceptions about the other.

A remake of the 1981 French film Garde à Vue, Suspicion never transcends its stagy, two-character format. Director Stephen Hopkins (Lost in Space) tries desperately to open up the story by adding multiple flashbacks showing both Benezet's and Hearst's views of the crimes and what led to them, but these scenes never seem like more than padding.

Hackman has the heftier role and digs in as if this were filet mignon rather than a cheaper cut. Freeman's part isn't as well fleshed out, but the actor's eloquent eyes make up where words fail.(R)

Bottom Line: Big guns, not enough ammunition

Woman on Top

Penélope Cruz, Murilo Benicio

Penélope Cruz, the Spanish actress who is being touted stateside as the Next Big Thing, can't claim that crown just yet. Though comely, she fails to enchant in her first major English-language movie, a tiresome sex comedy. The problem lies less with Cruz than with the movie: Woman OD's on cutesy.

The film is—who'd have guessed?—about the battle of the sexes. The results onscreen, however, amount to little more than a skirmish. Cruz plays a Brazilian chef who, upon discovering that her beloved husband (Benício) has been spicing up his own love life elsewhere, bolts her native Bahia and heads for San Francisco. There, she moves in with a drag-queen pal (Harold Perrineau Jr.) from her hometown and lands her own cooking show on local TV. Her husband comes looking for her, but thanks to a self-cast voodoo spell, Cruz is able to resist his entreaties. But for how long?

Woman on Top works way too hard at being kooky, mistaking antic nuttiness for frothy charm. To put it in culinary terms: The movie is a fruitcake that wishes it were a soufflé.(R)

Bottom Line: Meandering Cruz

The Fantasticks

Joe McIntyre, Jean Louisa Kelly

Best known for the song "Try to Remember," this musical has been playing Off-Broadway continuously since 1960. A simple fable, it tells of a boy and girl whose fathers have staged a feud, sure that parental opposition will bind their children together in love.

Okay, it's a dumb fable.

This bite-size movie version shot by director Michael Ritchie five years ago is only now being released. It should have been shipped straight to the coroner's. The lovers (McIntyre and Kelly) trill one earnest, sound-alike ballad after another. It's all cotton candy: spun sugar that dissolves instantly, leaving a cloying sweet aftertaste. To borrow from the title: Ick.(PG)

Bottom Line: Aging gracelessly

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