Palmetto

on February 20, 1998 by Wade Major
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   Though not exactly in the same league with the likes of James Ellroy and Elmore Leonard, crime novelist James Hadley Chase nonetheless appears to have a substantial enough following to merit "Palmetto," a marginally successful adaptation of his quasi-noir novel "Just Another Sucker."
   Vaguely reminiscent of at least a dozen classic noirs, including "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and "Double Indemnity," "Palmetto" is a curiously mixed bag, a revisionist thriller that veers wildly from the satirical to the campy, finally overcoming its initial tediousness with a pair of familiar, yet effective twists.
   Woody Harrelson stars as Harry Barber, a scrappy ex-journalist on his way home to the sleepy Florida town of Palmetto after a two year stint in prison for a crime he didn't commit. More than just slightly bitter at the system, Barber seizes the chance to make a fast buck when Rhea Malroux (Elisabeth Shue), the young wife of aging tycoon Felix Malroux (Rolf Hoppe), asks him to participate in a friendly family scam. Unhappy with their generous allowances, Rhea and her step-daughter Odette (Chloe Sevigny) have concocted a bogus kidnapping plot that requires only one additional person to recover the loot and to provide an appropriately menacing telephone voice. For $50,000, it's an offer Harry can't refuse.
   Naturally, things don't go quite as Harry would like them to, despite some elaborate precautions on his part. But neither do they go as quite anyone else expects, with everyone's mutual and concurrent bungling adding a refreshing trace of absurdist humor to the mix.
   Unfortunately, on the whole there remains little to distinguish "Palmetto" from countless better knockoff noirs, notwithstanding director Volker Schlondorff's ("The Tin Drum," "A Handmaid's Tale") noble efforts at wielding mood and ambience. Bogged down by a cumbersome setup from which the film only partially recovers, "Palmetto" is best distinguished by fine performances from Harrelson and Shue who remain engaging throughout, even when E. Max Frye's script gives them next to nothing to do. Gina Gershon, however, seems painfully miscast as Harry's stalwart girlfriend, a colorless and minuscule role ill-suited to her talents.    Starring Woody Harrelson, Elisabeth Shue, Gina Gershon, Michael Rapaport, Chloe Sevigny. Directed by Volker Schlondorff. Written by E. Max Frye. Produced by Matthias Wendlandt. A Columbia release. Thriller. Rated R for sexuality, language and some violence. Running time: 114 min.
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