Touch

on February 14, 1997 by Dale Winogura
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   A confused, half-hearted mess of irreverent religious satire, semi-serious theology, black comedy and romantic drama, "Touch" never develops its potentially provocative ideas. Using some of his Calvinist upbringing, in which people are either predestined for salvation or not, writer/director Paul Schrader (last heard from with 1992's "Light Sleeper") has resurfaced with sloppy storytelling and loose craftsmanship that turn his thesis into a bland and indigestible gruel.
   In one of his rare unfocused and unpersuasive performances, Christopher Walken plays a hustler and con man who was once a phony faith healer. When he meets the genuine article (played with moments of sensitivity by "Scream's" Skeet Ulrich), he enlists a former employee of his (a spaced-out Bridget Fonda) to ascertain whether the healer's powers really are real. Predictably, she develops a fondness for her quarry, and vice versa. A fanatical zealot (Tom Arnold, evincing his usual crass and strained sense of farce) has his own vaguely motivated agenda for the healer's miraculous abilities. A central conflict between materialism and spirituality isn't dramatized with any sincerity or insight. Instead, Schrader piles on offbeat cinematic touches, elliptical transitions and dialogues that go droning toward aimlessness. His cold, cerebral approach to the characters fails to define them in any meaningful or involving way. Except for Ulrich, the cast members play their parts as though they couldn't care less.
   Obviously, in dealing with matters of true vs. bogus faith, Schrader is trying to make a personal statement, using Elmore Leonard's book of the same name as a springboard. But, unlike Schrader's best films ("Hardcore" and "Patty Hearst"), he doesn't strike a balance between realism and stylization, or take enough chances in examining complex human behavior. "Touch" is a labored, witless misfire, missing the satirical targets that Luis Bunuel hit right on the nose in his delightfully scathing 1965 comedy, "Simon of the Desert." For Schrader, meanwhile, it's midnight on the oasis. Starring Bridget Fonda, Christopher Walken, Skeet Ulrich and Tom Arnold. Directed and written by Paul Schrader. Produced by Lila Cazes and Fida Attieh. An MGM release. Comedy/drama. Rated R for some sexuality, language and a scene of violence. Running time: 97 min
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