[Screen It]

(2001) (Antonio Banderas, Angelina Jolie) (R)

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Drama: A man tries to track down his wife after discovering that she's been posing as the mail order bride he initially intended to marry.
Sometime in the past, Luis Vargas (ANTONIO BANDERAS) is a successful Cuban businessman who has everything in life but a wife and family. Accordingly, he arranges to marry an American woman he knows only through letters they've sent to one another.

When the ravishing Julia Russell (ANGELINA JOLIE) finally arrives to be his bride, Luis is taken aback a bit since she looks nothing like the photos of her that he earlier received. She explains that she didn't want a man interested in her only for her looks, which suits him just fine since he had also fibbed to her about his status within his company so that she wouldn't marry him just for his wealth.

The two are then quickly married, and while their passion isn't immediate, it's quite strong once it develops between the two. Things couldn't seem to be going any better for them until Luis receives a visit from Walter Downs (THOMAS JANE), an American investigator who's been hired by Julia's sister, Emily (CORDELIA RICHARDS), to check up on Julia's whereabouts and well-being.

Luis assures Walter that Julia is just fine with him, but by the time he learns that the woman he married is really an impostor, she's cleaned out both his belongings and bank accounts. From that point on, Luis joins forces with Walter to track down this woman that he still loves, not realizing the various surprises that are in store for him once he finds and discovers the truth about her and others he's met.

OUR TAKE: 2.5 out of 10
Throughout the annals of time, all sorts of things have been said about the emotion best described as the deep and intense feeling of affection, attraction and solicitude toward another person. We've heard that love is a "many splendored thing," that all you need is love, and that it will lift you up where you belong. Many have also heard the conflicting notions that it either stinks or will keep us together.

While there's some validity to all of those points, there's no denying that love is also blind. What else would explain women who give all of their money to death row inmates and even marry them, as well as family members and friends who can't see the forest for all of the trees and thus don't notice - what everyone else does - that the person they're with is absolutely wrong for them.

In fact, love is so blind that one would think that the eye care providers of the world would unite to study why that condition seems to have such a devastating effect on ocular activity and, in particular, the ability to perceive. Moviegoers who witness "Original Sin," however, are apt to schedule an appointment with their eye doctor after seeing the film, although little of that will have to do with feeling any sort of positive affection for it.

Instead, they'll be concerned that there might be something wrong with their eyes after watching this technically poor looking picture and realizing that the potentially sizzling chemistry between its leads has been smothered.

Based on the novel "Waltz Into Darkness" by Cornell Woolrich (who also wrote "Phantom Lady" and the short story that inspired "Rear Window"), the film is presumably supposed to be a steamy erotic thriller about a man so in love with a woman that his judgment about her is clouded, thus potentially endangering his life.

While the source material - with which I'm not familiar -- may have gotten its readers all worked up, about the only reactions this tepid, melodramatic and poorly executed effort will elicit are ones of indifference or anger about having wasted one's money and time sitting through it.

Sure, there's a graphic sex scene between leads Antonio Banderas ("Spy Kids," "Play It to the Bone") and Angelina Jolie ("Tomb Raider," "Girl, Interrupted") and related nudity, as well as character reversals and revelations, revenge motives and murder, all seemingly poised to create a fun, noir-type picture.

Yet, the way in which writer/director Michael Cristofer (the director of "Body Shots" and HBO's "Gia" and adaptive screenwriter of "The Witches of Eastwick" and "The Bonfire of the Vanities") has adapted Woolrich's work robs all of that material of the necessary passion needed to make any of it work. The sex scenes and nudity are surprisingly less than erotic - especially considering the sexuality that both performers have exhibited in previous efforts - while the revelations are either lackluster or ill-defined and the film's thriller elements are decidedly less than thrilling.

Since the film has reportedly been sitting on the shelf for quite some time now after being kicked around the release schedule more than once, it's hard to say whether what appears on the screen is Cristofer's intended vision or the unfortunate result of too many hands trying to "fix" the product.

Whatever the case, the story - told in unnecessary flashback and voice over narration by Jolie's character on a prison's death row - isn't as coiled as tightly as it should be. It also rarely surprises the viewer with its venom or various twists and turns, elements that are necessary for a film like this to work.

The dialogue flowing from the performers' mouths is often atrociously bad - although not quite to the point of being so awful that it becomes delightfully good - and the melodrama occasionally gets so thick that it acts like a cataract and clouds the filmmaker's vision. Interestingly enough and intentional or not, Cristofer even brings that to the viewer's attention when Jolie's character attends a play and comments on loving the cheap melodrama. Perhaps the writer/director was so enamored with the material that he missed the irony of that, or then again, he might just be a brave soul to drop such a line.

Worse yet, we never feel Luis' love for Julia - although we do observe it - and thus don't buy into the notion that she'd blind-side him to such a degree that he'd be oblivious to or just ignore what she's previously done. Accordingly, we neither revel in their passion nor feel sorry for what happens to him.

Essentially a three-person tale, the film never overcomes the fact that we don't care about and/or aren't particularly interested in the characters. Banderas is okay playing the sort of role that could have worked well in a Hitchcock thriller had Sir Alfred been its captain, but the actor doesn't bring the right touch to the character to make him work.

Jolie - sporting such huge lips (that open the film in massive close-up) and abundant amounts of cleavage that all of those parts probably required an on-set handler of their own - was obviously the right sort of actress for the part. While she has the sultry look down pat and clearly benefits from her off-screen rumors of kinkiness, however, the Oscar winner can't overcome the underdeveloped and poorly written part.

Thomas Jane ("Deep Blue Sea," "Boogie Nights") makes up the third leg of the triangle, playing a private eye with a lot of baggage beyond that necessary to find his missing target. Despite some late in the game kinkiness on his part, the same fate befalls the actor as is the case with his costars, and that's namely inhabiting a character that should be interesting and/or intriguing, but fails to be that way.

From a technical perspective, the film is clearly far from the best you'll see all year, a point exacerbated by the odd and distracting inclusion and use of jump cuts in various scenes. Whether Cristofer intended to create some sort of uneasiness or confusion by utilizing such rough, non-continuous footage or simply had to fix acting or technical errors is debatable, but the end result is the same.

It's difficult to pinpoint what the film's first cinematic transgression might have been, but it ends up with so may of them that few, if any viewers will love or be blind-sided by what the film has to offer. "Original Sin" thus rates as just a 2.5 out of 10.

Reviewed July 31, 2001 / Posted August 3, 2001

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