Picks and Pans Review: Identity

updated 05/05/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/05/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Ray Liotta, John Hawkes

The heck with whodunit. What you really want to know while watching Identity, a psychological horror film besotted with its own cleverness, is how many gallons of water the cast got doused with during production. It rains rivers in nearly every scene. These folks must have resembled prunes at the end of the day.

Identity takes that hoariest of movie clichés—a group of strangers are stranded together, and someone begins killing them off one by one—and then adds a sneaky twist. A nasty storm and resultant flooding is the excuse for 11 potential victims to gather at a seedy motel in the Nevada desert. There's a limo driver (Cusack) who is pointedly reading French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness, the kvetching actress he is chauffeuring (Rebecca De Mornay), a prostitute (Peet), a law officer (Liotta) and the prisoner (Jake Busey) he's transporting, and others. The only guy obviously missing is Norman Bates, though the hotel clerk (John Hawkes) here seems mighty shifty.

The film isn't as scary as it wants to be, despite an insistent, danger-is-imminent soundtrack, nor as canny. Director James Mangold (Girl, Interrupted) allows too many jokes to fall flat or strain, and what's with all the pregnant pauses? You could easily trim 15 minutes out if they were snipped. Cusack and Peet, beneficiaries of what passes for fully written roles here, shine brightest in the ensemble cast—though no one comes out of Identity covered in major glory, rather just all wet. (R)

BOTTOM LINE: Tricks but no major treats

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