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(1998) (Woody Harrelson, Elisabeth Shue) (R)

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Drama: A desperate man agrees to participate in a fake kidnaping scheme in exchange for cash, but then finds himself an unwitting pawn in an ever increasingly complex and dangerous situation.
After being framed and serving two years in prison, ex-newspaper reporter Harry Barber (WOODY HARRELSON) is once again a free man. Although he's desperate not to return to the small, steamy seaside town of Palmetto, Florida, his girlfriend Nina (GINA GERSHON), persuades him to return. Unable to find a job, Harry meets Rhea Malroux (ELISABETH SHUE), the seductively flirtatious wife of Felix Malroux (ROLF HOPPE), a wealthy man dying of lung cancer, who's cared for by their manservant, Donnelly (MICHAEL RAPAPORT).

It seems that Felix has both her and her stepdaughter, Odette (CHLOE SEVIGNY), on a tight financial leash that neither appreciates. Thus, they've concocted a fake kidnaping plan to extort money from him, but need Harry to be the threatening voice on the phone and to pick up the $500,000 ransom, of which he'll keep ten percent. Uncertain at first, a later amorous encounter with Rhea, and then a close encounter the Lolita-like Odette makes up his mind. While the plan seems simple enough, complications immediately set in.

John Renick (TOM WRIGHT), the assistant D.A. and husband to Nina's sister, wants a seasoned man to deal with the press regarding the kidnaping, and thus hires Harry for the job. From that point on, Harry must deal not only with his unique situation, but also with the fact that events start unfolding that ultimately will frame him for the kidnaping -- and possibly a murder -- if he can't figure out who's responsible and how to get himself out his ever worsening predicament.

If they're fans of someone in the cast they might. Otherwise, it's doubtful this film will draw in many kids, especially in the preteen age.
For sexuality, language and some violence.
  • WOODY HARRELSON plays a former reporter who was wrongly accused of committing a crime and served two years in jail. Upon his release, he agrees to participate in a fake kidnaping in exchange for fifty thousand dollars, and then must cover lie upon lie as he digs a deeper hole for himself. He also uses profanity and smokes throughout the film.
  • ELISABETH SHUE plays a ditsy seductress who uses sex to persuade Harry to participate in her kidnaping/extortion plan.


    OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
    In 1981, a film by the name of "Body Heat" came along and stirred up the older film genre known as film noir. Injecting southern, steamy sex into what was essentially a remake of Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity" (1944), the film dealt with a somewhat dimwitted man whose hormones got into the way of his better sense, causing him to get wrapped up with a seductive femme fatale and her twist-filled plans.

    Following in the well-received footsteps of Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck and William Hurt and Kathleen Turner, we now have Woody Harrelson and Elisabeth Shue filling out the roles of the gullible guy and the seductress with a plan in "Palmetto." Set in the steamy Florida town of the same name, the film has the requisite sweaty bodies, dark shadows, ceiling fans, murder, and more than its share of twists to easily qualify for the noir genre. Although everything's in place, this simmering stew of a story was unfortunately taken off the stove about a half hour before it was done. While the ingredients are there, the lack of proper preparation makes this a rather bland course.

    That's actually surprising considering that the casting seems near-perfect for the characters needed in this genre. Who better to play the dimwitted, partially gullible and certainly down on his luck man then Woody Harrelson? Although he's since gone to become a movie star (a rare feat to accomplish coming from the "idiot box" as my father used to call the TV), Harrelson will always be remembered playing Woody Boyd, the dimwitted, but charming bartender on the long running "Cheers." Then there's Elisabeth Shue, an attractive woman with a figure accentuated by her tight, form-fitting clothes who would bring most men to their knees, let alone cause them to accept her plan after a roll in the bed.

    So, you may ask, where does the movie go wrong? Simply put, it's the characters' mixed up motivations. While they may look and somewhat act their parts, Harrelson's and Shue's characters and their actions just aren't believable. Instead of playing the seductress like Turner in "Body Heat," Shue delivers a ditsy seductress, who went not throwing her curves around, likes to play dress up in wigs and/or playfully assume other identities. At times she shows hints of malevolence, but usually she comes across as rather tame.

    In fact, the film makers took a risky gamble by playing Shue ("Adventures in Babysitting," "The Karate Kid") against type, and switching her persona with characters usually played by the likes of Gina Gershon, who herself plays against her normal type. The effects are nothing more than a little interesting. Had Shue played a more villainous creation, that would have been one thing, but her performance (playing it the way the role is written) makes one wish that they had left the actresses alone and kept Gershon in the "bad girl" role, leaving Shue to play the faithful girlfriend.

    The bigger problem lies with Harrelson's inconsistent character. Sure, we understand he's supposed to be gullible and fall prey to Shue's seduction, all of which causes him to fall deeper and deeper in trouble. The fact is, we see one thing, but we're told another. He may act dimwitted, but we're told that he was a terrific investigative reporter, and the two personas certainly don't match. Perhaps the time in prison changed the man, but it's just not believable that he could so easily fall prey to the seduction, let alone be persuaded to assist in the plan.

    First off, he's just spent two years in jail, and should never have been there in the first place (he was framed). There's no way he would risk going back if he's truly the innocent, honest man we're consistently told he is. Then there's the fact that he wouldn't do this for only $50,000 -- the risks far outweigh the gains. And a one-time romp in the hay with Shue certainly wouldn't and shouldn't be all the persuasion he needs, especially when his girlfriend is a knockout herself (Gina Gershon from "Bound" and "Showgirls"). Unfortunately, director Volker Schlondorff (the award-winning and older, but recently controversial, "The Tin Drum") and screenwriters E. Max Frye and Matthias Wendlandt (working from the James Hadley Chase novel, "Just Another Sucker"), have exactly followed that path.

    It's never once believable, and the fact that we can't accept any of that taints our ability to fully enjoy the rest of the ride. All of that's too bad, because a few simple tweaks of the plot could have fixed those problems. For instance: Harry's drunk/despondent/delirious, he sleeps with Shue who seduced him, and then finds out that she's going to tell his girlfriend (who can get him a position with the only company in town that will hire an ex-con) if he doesn't go along with the kidnaping plan. With that, or many other possible scenarios (including, perhaps, a revenge motive against Malroux), the motivation would be believable. As it stands, one can't even accept that he returns to the dead-end town of Palmetto (that he adamantly states at the beginning that he'll never return to) let alone that he gets involved in a hair-brained scheme like this.

    If you can get past the motivation-based problems, the film then proceeds to offer the requisite twists and turns as we watch Harry sink deeper and deeper into an ever expanding, problem-filled hole. Some of them are "fun" and somewhat surprising, and it's a blast watching Harrelson slowly but surely realize what he's gotten himself into. Even so, the characters can't fully escape from their ridiculously written parts.

    For instance, Harry's girlfriend, whom we know little about other than that she welds metal scraps into art, seemingly accepts that he has the body of a dead girl in his trunk -- and may be responsible, but once she learns that he slept with Rhea, she then says that she's had enough (even though she still sticks around). C'mon, nobody will buy into that notion, but then again I guess we're supposed to believe that Harry would be enticed by Rhea in the first place when he has the very attractive Nina back home.

    Other stupid moments abound that only further dampen our interest in the film. Would Harry really leave the trunk of the car open (there's a dead girl inside) when at any moment his girlfriend could walk in? Or, would he give her a tape recording of the original plan knowing full well that his later sexual escapades were recorded, and would she play this tape in a cab where the driver would hear the murderous intentions? Then there's the bit where Harry calls the "kidnaped" girl from none other than the D.A.'s office (albeit a door away, but still!). If the filmmakers had originally made him the Woody Body/Jethro Bodine of Palmetto, that would have been one thing, but if that were so, the D.A.'s office wouldn't have hired him in the first place.

    This is one of those films you wished would work and are therefore that much more disappointed when it doesn't. A talented cast is wasted in poorly thought out roles, and what makes all of that worse is that with a little tweaking the film could have been so much better. Although in hindsight the film's plot structure works and the twists and turns add the usual fun element to offerings of this noir genre, the film could have used more characters attempting to double cross each other.

    The "big" surprises come at the end when we learn whom everyone really is, but beyond their identities, their actions are not at all surprising. It would have been much more fun and compelling had more characters been in on the original plan thus indicating that Harry was supremely set up. As it stands, there are some decent moments, but the film cannot survive the motivational problems that occur in both plot and character. Therefore, we give "Palmetto" a 4 out of 10.

    Here's a quick look at the film's content. Profanity is extreme with more than 20 "f' words and an assortment of others. There are some sensually sexy scenes, but nothing that's very explicit or that shows much activity or nudity (mainly just sweaty groping, heavy breathing, and women wearing ultra skintight clothing). A few murders/deaths occur, but except for one where a man falls into a vat of acid, they happen off screen. Woody Harrelson smokes throughout the movie, and participates in a fake kidnaping/extortion plot and then tries to cover up his crimes. Since some kids will probably want to see this film (from the sexy ads, or due to the cast members), you should probably look through the content to determine whether this film is appropriate for you or anyone in your family.

  • Harry often orders a shot of bourbon, but never drinks it.
  • Rhea drinks a bit of a vodka martini, and Harry later fixes her another one.
  • Harry drinks a shot of whiskey and we then see that he had quite a bit to drink (by the amount left in the bottle).
  • Some background people drink in bars.
  • A dead person has just a little bit of blood running from their nose.
  • Although not seen, a person is dissolved in a huge tub of some sort of acid mixture and the sight of a person stirring up this other person (only the stirring motion is seen) might be unsettling to some viewers.
  • A person falls into a vat of acid and we see very brief glimpses of bloody, burned skin as they writhe in the vat.
  • Some people have a little bit of blood on them after coming in contact with a man who's been shot in the shoulder.
  • Harry not only sleeps with Rhea (when he already has a girlfriend), but he agrees to participate in a fake kidnaping scheme to extort money from a wealthy man, and then tries and finally succeeds at covering up a murder.
  • The other people involved in the kidnaping plan also have both, not only for the scheme, but also for what they have planned for Harry.
  • Harry has several close encounters with people while he has a dead body in the trunk of the car he's driving.
  • A man is hoisted up above a vat of acid and is threatened to be lowered into it.
  • A person falls into a vat of acid and we see brief glimpses of bloody, burned skin as they writhe in the vat.
  • Handguns: Used by a cop to shoot someone in the shoulder. Later used by a bad guy to threaten someone else.
  • Phrases: "Bastard," "Shut up," "F*ck face," "Jerk off," and "Dumb f*ck."
  • Several people plot and then execute a fake kidnaping scheme to extort money from someone else.
  • None.
  • There is a mild amount of suspenseful music in a few scenes.
  • Some lyrics playing in the background of a scene include the words, "I want to put my mouth on you..." (But the context couldn't be discerned).
  • At least 23 "f" words (3 used sexually), 3 "s" words, 1 slang term using male genitals ("c*cksucker"), 5 hells, 5 damns, 2 asses, 2 S.O.B.'s, and 5 uses of "Oh God", 2 of "My God" and 1 use each of "Jesus," "Oh Jesus," and "Jesus Christ" as exclamations.
  • Nina comes up to Harry and says that he smells good. She then licks his shoulder and neck and sucks on his ear saying that he tastes good as well.
  • The camera (supposedly showing us what Harry's looking at) often focuses on Rhea's or Odette's butt, legs, or ample bosom.
  • Rhea wears skintight dresses that showcase her body and at times we see some of her cleavage.
  • As Harry feels Rhea's body for a wire (ie. to record their conversation), she moans as his hands feel her breasts, butt and other areas. Moments later she tells them he might want to check things again, so he comes over to her and feels her butt, caresses her clothed breasts and pulls her dress up (revealing just a tiny bit of her bare butt). He then kisses her cleavage and the inside of her thigh. It's implied that they have sex.
  • Odette is just as much as seductress as her stepmother Rhea, but while she tries to seduce Harry, nothing happens.
  • We twice see Odette in some skimpy underwear.
  • There's some passionate kissing and breathing between Harry and Rhea again with the possibility that they had sex as well (nothing is seen but her leaving and buttoning her dress). There's also the possibility that she has sex with Donnelly in a car as we see them start to passionately kiss.
  • Harry smokes quite often throughout the movie, while John smokes a few times.
  • Rhea pulls out a cigarette and holds it, but won't let Harry light it for her, saying that she doesn't smoke.
  • Some background characters smoke in a bar.
  • Odette mentions that her real mother drove off a cliff to her death several years ago.
  • A man must deal with his daughter's kidnaping and later her death.
  • That crime doesn't pay, no matter how well conceived the plan.
  • Harry smacks Odette for being involved in the kidnaping plan, and in response she smacks him back.
  • Harry hits a man over the head with a large flashlight, knocking him unconscious.
  • Rhea smacks Harry and he smacks her back and they then briefly struggle before becoming aroused toward each other.
  • Harry finds a person who's been murdered, and later another body is discovered showing that there was another murder.
  • A man is shot in the shoulder and wounded.
  • A man hits another person with a handgun (after aiming it point blank at them) and then hits the person several times again).
  • A man falls into a vat of acid that kills him after a few moments of him writhing in the acid.

  • Reviewed February 13, 1998

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