Thursday, April 7, 2011

Jennifer Eight (1992)

Jennifer Eight (1992) is really two films. One the one hand, it is a mystery. John Berlin (Andy Garcia) is an ex-Los Angeles police officer, recently relocated to Northern California, where he begins his first investigation. He believes that there is a serial killer targeting young, blind women. During his investigation, he meets a potential witness to the identity of the killer, Helena Robertson (Uma Thurman), who is also young and blind. After she is interviewed by the police, Helena catches someone spying on her while she is in the bathtub. Berlin believes that she is the next target for the serial killer and attempts to protect her during the course of his investigation.

On the other hand, Jennifer Eight is a drama. John Berlin's relocation to Northern California is the beginning of a new life. Back in Los Angeles, his marriage ended very badly. This fueled a bout of alcoholism. Berlin has never let go of these old feelings even in his new surroundings. He begins an obsessive investigation of murderer who may not even exist. With the smallest pieces of evidence, Berlin makes very tenuous links to build his case. He can find no support for his investigation, not even from his closest friend on the police force, Freddie Ross (Lance Henrikson). Beyond the lack of support, all of Berlin's colleagues eventually turn their back to him, as each believes that not only has John gone too far but is becoming completely incompetent as an investigator. Everyone sees Berlin's attachment to Helena as Berlin trying to control a woman who cannot leave him: Berlin scares Helena into thinking that someone is actually targeting her; and because she is blind, she becomes dependent on Berlin to protect her, creating a false intimacy between the two--a relationship fueled wholly by dysfunction.

Beautifully weaved, these two narratives could create at its conception at least a minor classic film with Jennifer Eight. From his own script, director Bruce Robinson, who had previously written and directed the prestigious Withnail & I, would be aided by two actors, Andy Garcia and Uma Thurman, who appeared on the verge of becoming breakout stars. Jennifer Eight never lived up to its potential and as a result it is almost forgotten today. Instead of two narratives beautifully weaved, Jennifer Eight is two films fighting each other: the dramatic narrative hurts the mystery and vice versa. As an amateur critic, I have two films' worth of flaws to critique, and I ain't doing that. Here's a representative problematic scene:

As a follow-up interview, Berlin visits the institute for the blind, where Helena lives and works, to see if Helena remembers anything since their last meeting about the identity of the killer. As a kind gesture and perhaps as a romantic one, Berlin invites Helena to a seaside diner for lunch. After her interview at the institute during which Berlin gathers little in the way of concrete evidence, Helena asks, "If I go to the diner with you, would you bring me back?" This line doesn't convey Helena's distrust of Berlin as a stranger: it's designed to engender pity for Helena. Obviously people have treated Helena poorly in the past, and she's scared. Berlin says he would, and Helena accompanies him. At the diner, Helena opens up and becomes vulnerable. She tells Berlin that she feels as if she is sitting in the middle of the restaurant and everyone is staring at her. Confidently, Berlin tells her that no one is looking at her, except him. Thurman's Helena is immediately warmed by Berlin's words. Conversation resumes. Helena asks Berlin if he was once married. He says he was and prefers not to talk about it. So, Helena talks about poetry and then prayer. When she brings up prayer to Berlin, Garcia's Berlin goes into intense mode and begins an "abandonment by God" diatribe. Director Robinson begins a slow close-up on Helena's reaction, and Berlin's words are obviously scaring the shit out of her.

The end result of scenes like this have the viewer sitting there thinking maybe Berlin has really lost it. How can the Berlin investigation scenes begin again? These scenes are played in earnest, like any investigative mystery. In other words, the viewer is watching a traditional investigative, deductive mystery with the expectations of a traditional pay-off: a conclusion which includes the revelation of the identity of the killer. Inherently, that presumes that there has to be a killer. The viewer doesn't question Berlin because of his flaws. The viewer questions Berlin. Garcia's Berlin doesn't always come off as obsessive and intense. Often, he appears unhinged or creepy. The viewer can follow Berlin as sleuth and pick up the clues with passive complacency. When dramatic scenes ensue, the viewer can watch Berlin lose his shit with an active, critical objectivity. Viewer sympathy, and then viewer repulsion.

One of the other problems is Berlin and Helena's relationship. It's clearly intended to be a romance, but it comes off more as a protective parent/child relationship. In one scene, Berlin locates Helena to his own home to protect her. While sweet classical music plays on the stereo, the two sit silently by a fire. Berlin is looking at Helena on the couch. His gaze, I suppose, is an attempt to be evocative of a growing love (aided by the mood created by the music). I don't know about anyone else, but when people stare at me, eventually I begin to grow uncomfortable. Helena is blind, so Berlin can stare at her without her feeling discomfort. Staring blankly at people is creepy. Staring blankly at an attractive blind woman is creepy. If Jennifer Eight is seeking to demonstrate the fine line between sweet and creepy, then the participants have wholly succeeded. However, I doubt that was their intention.

There are other seriously detracting flaws within Jennifer Eight, but they do not matter. What is so unfortunate about the finished film is the evident creative talent both in front of and behind the camera. In my opinion, Jennifer Eight needed a lot more work at its conception, as the execution just never works. I discovered today, however, that Bruce Robinson's latest film, an adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's novel, The Rum Diary, starring Johnny Depp, is premiering in theatres later this year (according to the IMDB). Sweet and creepy certainly has a lot more potential with Thompson and Depp thrown into the mix.


Mr.LargePackage said...

Great review, Hans. Sweet and creepy sounds like a sauce served at a serial killer's house, always ice cold. And that is large and in charge.

J.D. said...

I like this film a lot, flaws and all. I read a recent interview with Robinson and this film caused him to quit the biz for years so I get the feeling that studio tampered with the final product which may explain some of its flaws.

What always strikes me about this film is the incredible vulnerability Uma Thurman conveys in this film. Your heart really goes to her but never in terms of pity, IMO. You want to protect her and Thurman really does a good job of conveying the fragile state of her character.

I also like the way Robinson shot this film. It is very atmospheric and he uses the setting very effectively.