The candidate. The seduction. The murder. The mystery.
The city. The cast. The director. The script. The…why am I writing this way?
Facts of the Case
Cray Fowler (James Spader, Stargate, Supernova) is a pretty-boy rich kid whose family is old money in New Orleans. Despite their wealth and social prominence, the Fowlers are still reeling from a federal investigation into the family business, a disgrace that led to Cray's father relieving himself of the roof of his skull with a double-barreled shotgun on the eve of his subpoenaed appearance in court. Now Cray is running for Congress—his campaign being marshaled by his weasely Uncle Clifford (Jason Robards, Magnolia, Philadelphia)—but the lingering whiff of scandal has buried him twenty points behind his rival in the polls.
With his political fortunes evaporating faster than the steam off a pot of gumbo, Cray meets two people who will change his future in ways he can't possibly predict: Nathan Lafleur (Michael Warren, nearly unrecognizable from his days as patrol cop Bobby Hill on the seminal TV police drama Hill Street Blues), an attorney with extensive and potentially critical connections in New Orleans's African-American community—a man who seems to know more of the truth about the skeletons in Cray's family closet than Cray himself; and Lee (Charlotte Lewis, The Golden Child), a beautiful Vietnamese-born martial arts instructor with whom Cray enjoys a volatile one-night stand.
When Lee's abusive father turns up murdered, with Lee as the prime suspect, former public defender Cray puts his campaign on the back burner to try her case, even though his former lover Natalie (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, Scandal, Navy SEALS) is leading the prosecution. At the same time, the tyro politico learns that his tryst with his now-client Lee has been preserved on videotape—a tape that may or may not have been acquired (perhaps even set up) by his opponent in the Congressional race.
Whoever said politics was boring?
I don't know whether it's possible to make a bad movie set in New Orleans. The Crescent City makes such a perfect backdrop for a film that even the most improbable plotline seems to just settle right in among the kudzu and Dixieland jazz. New Orleans lends an amazing surreal quality to just about any story set there. Speaking of surreal, when you look up that word in your dictionary, there's a reference to Twin Peaks, David Lynch's quirky early-1990s experiment in cult television.
So if I told you that Mark Frost, the writer/producer who worked alongside Lynch to create Twin Peaks, co-wrote and directed a movie set in New Orleans, you'd expect it to be pretty outré, no? Well, Storyville is that film, but if you're looking for the bizarre here, you're likely to be disappointed—Frost sneaks in a little strangeness, but for the most part delivers a far more accessible product. That should, however, be your only disappointment with this film because, true to New Orleans form, it's a right fine piece of cinematic entertainment. (The DVD release is trash, but we'll get to that shortly.)
In a way, it's to Frost's advantage not to attempt to make Storyville Twin Peaks with jambalaya instead of cherry pie. His central narrative, with its blackmail, murder, and assorted skullduggery, is sufficiently involving that it doesn't need Peaks's freakish otherworldliness or its off-kilter humor. In fact, Frost appears to have wanted to leave David Lynch so far in the dust that his direction here seems rather pedestrian and prosaic by comparison. But Frost's more conventional visual style, realized through the skillful, perceptive cinematography of Ronald Victor Garcia (who lensed both the Twin Peaks TV pilot and the prequel feature film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me), better serves this whodunit-slash-courtroom drama.
Frost's best decision may have been the casting of James Spader, who has manufactured a career out of portraying unctuous, amoral spoiled brats. Here, Spader plays an intriguing spin against type. His Cray Fowler is a silver-spoon scion who, despite a pattern of ill-advised behavior—like indiscreetly performing the love tussle with a woman not his wife in the middle of a political campaign, then defending said woman in a front-page murder trial during that selfsame campaign—is basically a good-hearted guy who wants to do the right thing, even if he isn't always 100% certain what that is. Spader—whose eminently watchable turn as oily and unpredictable criminal attorney Alan Shore on David E. Kelley's The Practice has at least momentarily rescued that foundering series from guaranteed cancellation—never steps wrong in his portrayal of a smart but callow man who's had everything handed to him in life and now needs to assert himself. I usually enjoy Spader's work—he is a severely underrated actor in my view—but he excels here without leaning too heavily on his trademark smarminess. He manages to make us empathize with, even like, a protagonist who is in many ways not admirable. That takes some doing.
There's a noteworthy cast surrounding Spader, with excellent performances by Joanne Whalley-Kilmer as Cray's on-again, off-again girlfriend and courtroom adversary, and Michael Warren as his reluctant ally. Charlotte Lewis contributes some moving moments as the victimized girl in the middle of the maelstrom. Charles Haid, once Warren's partner on Hill Street Blues, is hilariously sleazy as a low-rent pornography purveyor. The bit roles are filled largely by interesting character actors seen all too rarely, including Michael Parks (Kill Bill, Vol. 1 and its forthcoming sequel), Woody Strode (Once Upon a Time in the West, The Quick and the Dead), Jeff Perry (Wild Things, TV's Nash Bridges), and the immortal Chino "Fats" Williams, he of the rotund physique and the gravel-gargling voice. The only false note in the cast is sounded by the over-the-top Jason Robards, who devours the scenery like a post-spliff Twinkie.
Frost accomplishes a yeoman's job of juggling a sizable number of subplots, at least a couple of which could easily have been dispensed with. (Does the script really need to throw out the red herrings of blackmail and real estate swindling and Vietnam war crimes and transsexual porn? Give it a rest, already.) The mind-boggling array of divergent plot threads results in a rushed, forced denouement, in which several of the characters who have been instrumental to the story simply vanish from the screen, their loose ends flapping untied in the bayou breeze. (Speaking of which, for all that the title implies about the film's relationship to the sordid underbelly of New Orleans, Frost makes precious little use of the city's colorful exteriors. The same story could have been told in almost any Southern locale with minimal changes.) For the most part, though, Frost and his actors serve up a compelling—and, given its complexity, remarkably well-paced—tale, incorporating liberal doses of film noir, murder mystery, political thriller, and legal drama.
"Compelling" is not a word that well describes Columbia TriStar's DVD presentation of Storyville. This bare-bones disc includes a halfhearted full screen transfer ("Hello, Columbia? This is the 21st century calling…") struck from a grainy, faded, and bedraggled print. The video looks like something you videotaped from a television broadcast using a VCR that's in dire need of head cleaning. I'm not sure there's a single accurate representation of color, particularly flesh tones, anywhere in the film. No effort was expended toward cleaning up the dirt or print flaws in the source matter. And why on earth is this in pan-'n'-scan? Are the kiddies watching R-rated fare at your house?
Not surprisingly, the audio track is a plain-vanilla stereo separation with no surround enhancement. This is a shame, because Storyville features a stylish score by the always listenable composer Carter Burwell, whose lengthy résumé includes films by David Mamet (The Spanish Prisoner), Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich), and the Coen Brothers (pretty much everything from Blood Simple to Intolerable Cruelty). Both Burwell's music and the film's abundant dialogue are clearly reproduced, but the score would have benefited from more expansive engineering.
Also not surprisingly, the only extras included are trailers for four Columbia releases, none of which is Storyville.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Whatever happened to Charlotte Lewis, anyway? She went from this to Zalman King direct-to-video softcore cheese to oblivion. When I first saw her in The Golden Child, I thought she would be a star.
Storyville is an entertaining, noir-flavored mystery featuring a twisty—perhaps a mite too twisty—screenplay, solid acting by an excellent cast led by James Spader, and a dandy, understated score by the inimitable Carter Burwell. Too bad Columbia TriStar decided to give it the Everything's-A-Dollar-Store treatment on DVD. You might as well wait until the next time Storyville pops up on late-night cable.
Columbia TriStar is found guilty of neglect and abuse in its mishandling of this otherwise solid catalog title. The DVD team is sentenced to a week at the public library tracking down the rightful ownership of Louisiana oilfield property. No Google allowed. Court is adjourned.
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