The New Cult Canon: The Devil's Advocate

The New Cult Canon: The Devil's Advocate

"Diaboli virtus in lumbis est. Diaboli virtus in lumbis est. The virtue of the devil is in his loins."

And now Camp Month brings us to The Devil's Advocate—or, as I'd like to call it, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The "Hoo-ah" Al Pacino. When Pacino took the Best Actor Oscar for Scent Of A Woman, besting the likes of Denzel Washington in Malcolm X and Stephen Rea in The Crying Game, it felt ironically like one of the great actors of his generation had been lost to us. Gone was the quiet, tortured, soulful introspection of Pacino's work in classics like The Godfather Part II and Serpico. Instead, we received a preening scenery-chewer whose performances were all surface theatricality, with little character underneath. At the time, he seemed to me a husk of his former self, lazily coasting on the authority of his voice and his puffed-up reputation.

Now I'm here to tell you I was wrong, on a number of levels. Not about Scent Of A Woman, which is still dismal and shouldn't have won Pacino his sole Oscar, but about Pacino's "Hoo-ah" performances, which started well before Scent came along (in …And Justice For All and future NCC entry Scarface, for starters) and can be accomplished and riveting under the right circumstances. After I re-watched it on cable a few years ago, Pacino's flamboyant turn in The Devil's Advocate recalibrated my thinking on some of his late-period performances. Granted, Pacino has been guilty of grotesque self-parody on more than one occasion—Any Given Sunday and Two For The Money leap immediately to mind—but he also has presence, that ineffable quality that comes through in his face, his gruff vocal timbre, and his way of commanding the frame. Countless actors have played Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross, but who else could play him with that kind of authority? Ditto Michael Corleone in The Godfather, or Tony Montana in Scarface.

Pacino's work in The Devil's Advocate gives me an opportunity to talk about camp performances, which aren't quite synonymous with "hammy" or "over-the-top." Where you'd refer to, say, Rod Steiger or Charlton Heston as two of cinema's most glistening, honey-glazed hams, their indulgences stop short of camp because they lack a necessary playfulness. "Frivolity" and "excess" were the words used in Susan Sontag's 1964 essay "Notes On Camp," and they should apply to more than just the gay camp of Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Marlene Dietrich. Supplied with an all-you-can-eat buffet of juicy monologues, particularly in the fevered final act, Pacino gives a performance that isn't over the top so much as sublimely florid. Or, for lack of a better word, devilish.

With a catlike grin and a gleam in his eye, Pacino plays John Milton, head of the all-powerful New York City law firm of Lucifer, Beelzebub, and Pazuzu. In a broad sense, Milton's operation runs a lot like the one in John Grisham's The Firm: It represents elite clients, it's shady enough to draw attention from the Feds, its attorneys engage in all-night shredding sessions, it squelches dissent with extreme prejudice, and once hotshot young lawyers are recruited into its ranks, they don't have the option of leaving. One of those hotshot lawyers is Keanu Reeves, an unscrupulous Southern defense attorney who's never lost a case, which has led to many guilty clients getting exonerated. His latest case finds him obliterating a quivering young girl on the witness stand whom he knows is telling the truth about getting molested by his client, a sweaty-palmed math teacher.

Reeves' heroics in the Gainesville courts catch the attention of Milton's firm, which could use another morally vacant slickster to bolster its growing criminal-defense operation. Against his Bible-thumping mother's wishes, Reeves and his wife, Charlize Theron are lured to the modern-day Babylon of New York City, where they've given the royal treatment and tucked away in an upscale Rosemary's Baby apartment. Reeves immediately dives into exonerating the firm's wealthy crooks, including a goat-slaughtering voodoo practitioner and an unctuous executive accused of a sloppy triple murder. That leaves poor Theron all alone to suffer the devil's escalating torments, which start with horrifying hallucinations that carry portents about her plans to have a baby, and build to visions of fake-breasted housewives morphing into demons. Reeves keeps himself in the dark, perhaps willfully, but in this subway scene, the audience gets a sense of Milton's powers and colorful flair for language:

At 143 minutes, The Devil's Advocate takes more time than necessary to work itself into a melodramatic lather—though once it does in the final third, there are few Hollywood films in recent years that have gone so far out on a limb. As a morality tale, it's blunt by design and disappointingly pedestrian in the beginning, when Reeves and his questionable Southern accent overplay the lawyerly smarm. (Aside: Why are criminal-defense attorneys always nearest to Satan in our culture? Everyone deserves a fair trial and adequate representation, and if they didn't, our justice system would collapse. Reeves has every reason to be proud of his perfect record, so long as he's conducted himself ethically—which, of course, he doesn't at the end of the film.) And even once Pacino enters the picture, he offers the soft-sell temptations of money and stature over the Showcase Showdown of evil benefits that Reeves is presented with in the finale.

I'm tempted to cut straight to the climax and skip over the fitfully entertaining two hours that precede it, but a few notes first: Though Reeves' accent is his shakiest this side of Bram Stoker's Dracula: Dead And Loving It, he's still the right choice for the part—pretty, naïve, and not forceful enough to usurp Pacino, who needs an actor he can bully around. As for Charlize Theron, she certainly gives a lot of performance, but compared to Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby or Catherine Denueve in Repulsion, all that exerted energy yields little return. A few interior-decorating headaches, and her descent into madness and catatonia suddenly spirals out of control. Ultimately, this movie belongs to Pacino, aided by the maelstrom of gothic effects and colorful philosophizing whipped up by director Taylor Hackford and his screenwriters, Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy.

Though there are a handful of clever moments along the way—I particularly like the cameos by Alfonse D'Amato and Don King, two shameless self-promoters who must not have considered the context of their appearances—The Devil's Advocate saves most of its rhetorical fireworks for the end. And that's where Pacino, now outed as the devil incarnate, gets to prance around a giant, ornate stage, letting wicked words swish around his mouth before spitting them back in Reeves' general direction. In the courtroom of Reeves' soul, Pacino lays out a devastating closing argument. First, he notes that Reeves' suffering has come as a result of his choices—his vanity in keeping up his winning streak at all costs, his decision to put off caring for his sick wife; "I'm not the puppeteer," Pacino says. "I only set the stage. You pull the strings." Then he pulls the curtain back on the devil's kingdom, and here's where Pacino's actorly theatrics reach full flower:

Here's the funny thing about that speech: I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking, "Hey, the devil makes some cogent points." Throughout the film, Pacino's diablo offers up all the expected temptations—wealth, sex, power, endless indulgence—but here, the hook goes deeper, because what he's ultimately offering is freedom. And what greater freedom could there be than embracing the instincts that God—the sadist, the man in the Ivory Tower, the "absentee landlord"—has gifted Man, only to shut him down in the Garden Of Eden? Under the devil's logic, it's counterintuitive not only to deny ourselves the things we desire, but to consider worshiping God in the first place. Here's the kicker of the monologue:

I've been here on the ground with my nose in it since the whole thing began. I've nurtured every sensation man's been inspired to have. I cared about what he wanted, and I never judged him. Why? Because I never rejected him. In spite of all his imperfections, I'm a fan of man! I'm a humanist. Maybe the last humanist.

Again, very persuasive. And not unlike the "last temptation" in The Last Temptation Of Christ, in which Jesus is treated with warmth and compassion, and given nothing more outrageous than the promise of an ordinary life—a wife, a child, a thatch-roofed hut of his own. Here, Satan offers Connie Nielsen on a slab, but the sales pitch is the same: God is what we might aspire to, but the Devil is what we are, and there's no use fighting it. Sure, love may be out of the question, but as Pacino says, in maybe my favorite line in the film, "Overrated. Biochemically, no different from eating large quantities of chocolate." This devil, a down-to-earth, blue-collar guy, willing to ride the subway with the rest of us, is a more honest pander than the politician who walks around in jeans and a hardhat. There's no need for sacrifice or subjugation with him; he's a "fan of man!" and will take you as you are. Honestly, if Reeves' wife weren't destroyed in the bargain, he would have few reasons not to take the deal.

How many other major-studio movies have had the guts to stage the battle of ideas between good and evil in such a stark fashion? None that I can recall. But mostly, The Devil's Advocate is The Al Pacino Show, a camp romp through his full range of gesticulation and verbal gymnastics. He must be the most charismatic devil ever put on film, someone equally capable of making holy water boil and staying in touch with when, precisely, a woman is ovulating. It seems like the only camp performances that ever get appreciated over time are gay camp, so consider this entry a shot across the bow. Hoo-ah!

Next week: Showgirls

August 7: Sexy Beast

August 14: Sonatine

August 21: Gremlins 2: The New Batch