I Watched This On Purpose: 88 Minutes

I Watched This On Purpose: 88 Minutes

Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn't impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there's I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward. And a good time.

Cultural infamy: It's pretty infamous already. A twisty, real-time cop movie starring Al Pacino and directed by the guy behind… Fried Green Tomatoes? Yes indeed. And written by the guy who wrote Hollow Man 2? And an upcoming episode of the new Knight Rider relaunch? And a bunch of episodes of Las Vegas? Who puts these minds together and says "Let's give these guys $30 million to play with!" (The same people who sit on the movie a couple of years before releasing it, apparently.) The critics brutalized 88 Minutes; it has a 17 on Metacritic, with the highest review a 50 from an admitted Pacino apologist at the San Francisco Chronicle. Our own Keith Phipps called it "the definition of absurd," which in a way made me want to see it more. But beyond those terrible reviews, I know almost nothing about 88 Minutes, except that it's maybe about a cop trying to solve his own murder?

Curiosity factor: You know what? That's enough for me. Cop movie, Pacino, solving his own murder, real time. These are all movie bait for me. Keith told me it's "worse but more enjoyable" than the recent Righteous Kill, which pairs Pacino and Robert De Niro, and therefore should be much better. But beyond that, the curiosity factor is pretty limited. I didn't want to read too much about the silliness to be found in 88 Minutes, I wanted to experience those 88 minutes myself. So I was a little bummed looking at the Netflix sleeve—this thing is an hour and 47 minutes, which is considerably longer than 88. Where's Nick Of Time when you need verisimilitude?

The viewing experience: Wow. And not "wow" in a good way. When stupid, convoluted, and insanely implausible collide with overacting and plain bad filmmaking… How does a thing like this get released? How does whoever reads scripts for Al Pacino end up passing this along to him? He can't need the money, can he?

Anyway, let me get you up to speed on the plot, which somehow manages to be deceptively simple, yet completely confusing. Pacino is a forensic psychologist who loves to put away bad guys, even if maybe he has to stretch the truth a little bit. In his most famous case, he helps convict serial killer Jon Forster, who ties up women and bleeds them dry. Sound overwrought already? It is. We know that Forster is the real killer (we see him do it), but the action flashes forward several years, and women are being killed in exactly the same way, even though Forster is in jail. The possibilities: there's a copycat, an accomplice is trying to get Forster exonerated before he's executed, or Forster is innocent. (We know the latter isn't true, of course.)

On the day of Forster's scheduled execution, the cops find another body, and they want to talk to Pacino about it. He meets with a fresh-faced FBI agent (who we then never see again) as well as his local-cop buddy, Frank (William Forsythe, who plays a local-cop-buddy-grizzled-army-friend in lots of movies). In what seems to me to be a bit of improv, Pacino offers the FBI agent a cookie and some milk, then acts like an asshole for no apparent reason, then lets the agent basically break down the entire movie for us. Watch the scene, as Pacino uses sarcastic intonation when he doesn't actually mean to be sarcastic. It's kinda meta, really.

So there you have it. The killer is working with somebody on the outside, somebody who's capable of committing atrocious crimes and making them look exactly like crime scenes from the past. And not only that. We're about to learn that the copycat/accomplice(s) is/are also plotting to kill Pacino in the most convoluted, complicated way possible—and set him up as the murderer! He gets a phone call about 15 minutes into the movie telling him he has 88 minutes to live, and then the real-time starts. Thank God for the real time! (That's actual sarcasm, properly employed.) We get continuous updates throughout the movie, as Pacino's phone rings a lot, telling him stuff like, "66 minutes. Tick-tock, Doc." And the perp smashes his car and writes "72 minutes left" on it. And a CNN crawl across the bottom says, "You are watching a movie called 88 Minutes, and there are 43 minutes left." (Okay, not really, but all that other shit is true.)

Somewhere in there, things get completely out of hand, as plots from 76 different movies converge on this one, which can barely support the simple plot already laid out. I honestly can't tell you everything that happened in these 88 minutes, or why, because I have very little idea. We know that Pacino is immediately suspicious of everyone around him, because the camera starts zooming in on everybody's face, and Pacino starts asking weird questions. Is it his faithful assistant, played by Amy Brenneman? Is it one of his many students? Is it his student-assistant's boyfriend, played by the main vampire from True Blood? Is it EVERY FUCKING RANDOM PERSON HE MEETS IN 88 MINUTES? Pacino meets a campus cop and calls his own cop friend to have the guy's house searched. Why call it 88 Minutes? Was Red Herring: The Movie already taken?

So let me go through some of the various twists and turns, which are all being engineered by some super-genius, who happens to know where every person in the movie will be at all times, and knows exactly what every person will do in every situation. There's a biker guy following Al. (He might be the copycat.) There's Al's assistant, Kim, who has a crush on him. (She might be the copycat.) There's an annoying male student who's obsessed with the serial killer. (He might be the copycat.) There's Leelee Sobieski, a demure student who gets beaten up by the strange man on the motorcycle. (She might be the copycat.) None of them have plausible motives, of course. But one of them is apparently smart enough to break into Pacino's impenetrably secured apartment, shoot the guy on the motorcycle to death (he wasn't the copycat), blow up Pacino's car, perfectly time the murders of two more women—and plant Pacino's sperm in them—and still make it to the big finale in time to extract a confession (Pacino lied under oath) and murder a couple more people!

Not only that, but this amazing murderer also ties the whole thing to Pacino's past. You see, as a 28-year-old hotshot, he left his sister alone in his apartment, where she was tortured for 88 minutes and then killed. The only way the killer could possibly know this is if s/he broke into Pacino's apartment and stole one of only two copies of the audiotape of his sister being tortured! Never mind that his sister's killer was convicted, and that the details of the crime were surely a matter of public record. And never mind the fact that the whole "Let's fuck Al over in the same amount of time it took to kill his sister" plot is totally inane and irrelevant, especially when you're just planning to kill him anyway. The only reason to include this ridiculousness is to give Pacino a chance to act. He gives it a shot in this deep scene…

You're begging me, like I was begging the movie: "Just tell me. Put me out of my misery. Tell me who did it so I can laugh and then go back to not giving a shit." I'm gonna tell you, dear reader, because if you're going to watch this, you're going to watch it ironically anyway, and this won't make it any less funny. It was Leelee Sobieski, star pupil—but also a member of the serial killer's defense team! So she had unlimited access to him to plan copycat murders and set up Pacino. I'd yawn if the final scene weren't so hilarious. Just minutes before, she was at the police station, bruised. In the final scene, she's in leather gear, with her hair crimped and an evil look in her eye. She's holding another victim on a pulley system, about to drop her to her death. First, she extracts a confession from Pacino: Yes, he lied and exaggerated in the courtroom, because he knew Forster was guilty. In case you missed any of 88 Minutes, Pacino is ready to sum it all up for you at the end. Why bother even watching the action? It makes no more or less sense than this.

Insane things I didn't even touch on: If the killers wanted to frame Pacino and murder him at exactly the right time and place, why did they place a bomb in his car that nearly killed him? In what universe would a death-row serial killer be allowed to do an interview on live TV? The creepy motorcycle guy's name (the character, not the actor) is Guy LaForge. Who wrote this shit? Did this make sense to somebody, at some point in the process?

And finally, just for some filmmaking fun, check out this awesome whip-pan and sound effect as Pacino finds another red herring (the male student) in his office.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the alternate ending, which is actually just eight or so more minutes of explanation, including footage of the serial killer being executed, and Pacino explaining how he's sort of a liberal but also how it's okay for a witness to lie under oath if they're sure that the defendant is guilty. So you see, there's a message in this mess. Somewhere.

How much of the experience wasn't a total waste of time? Well, this might be an all-or-none proposition. It's an unmitigated, confusing-to-the-point-of-boring piece of shit. It's not so bad it's good—it's so bad it's fascinating, as if the people behind it knew what a big, twisty action movie should look and sound like, but had no idea that coherence or even mild believability were important. It might make more sense to someone who's blind drunk, so consider giving that a shot. I'm gonna say three minutes, just for Pacino scenery-chewing, which comes out to a little less than 3 percent. A failing grade by any standard.