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What lies beneath? Not much

This shallow film has some of Hitchcock's style but little of his class. Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer brighten the picture a bit.

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 21, 2000

The portly shadow of Alfred Hitchcock looms over each frame of What Lies Beneath, a sloppy assortment of cheap shocks and coincidences. A flattering imitation, perhaps, but these occasions seldom come off successfully without a Hitch.

Director Robert Zemeckis uses pieces of Hitchcock's style like a jigsaw puzzle cheater. There's a possible murder eyed through a rear window, a Vertigo-style twin, matrimonial Suspicion, a McGuffin and a bathroom assault that substitutes a tub for a Psycho shower. It might be a tribute, if Zemeckis didn't always resort to crude methods the master would have dismissed.

What Lies Beneath is an ironic title for such a shallow film. Whatever twists haven't been spoiled by terribly informative TV ads can be guessed long before confirmation. Then the movie turns into a series of "it-just-so-happened-that . . ." moments when everything occurs to bring closure, however uneasy.

The movie does have style, starting with an encouraging return to acting form by Michelle Pfeiffer. She plays Claire Spencer, a Vermont housewife with empty nest depression when her daughter leaves for college. Claire has other head problems that we'll learn of when it's convenient. Pfeiffer is Hitchcock's type of icy blond, with the wrongfully endangered daze of his best leading men.

That sort of role often goes to Harrison Ford, another actor in need of screen redemption after his past few films. Ford is cast here as Claire's husband, Norman, a genetics scientist with a few secrets. The actor looks fit and relaxed, casually leaping through whatever hoops the screenplay demands. It's impossible to discuss his capable performance without spoiling a few twists.

So, let's work from the over-exposition of the preview trailers. Norman once had an affair with a woman who later disappeared. Claire is getting creeped out by odd things around the house: doors opening, electrical appliances turning on, the usual. Is the place haunted? By whom, and for what reason?

Time's up.

What Lies Beneath is moody about all this eerie stuff, to the point of being laughable. Claire drags out a Ouija board for a seance with pal Jody (Diana Scarwid, back from TV movie exile), and you can cut the tension with a feather. A lock of hair becomes a hot-wire to ghostly possession struggling to emulate The Sixth Sense. What Lies Beneath makes little, if any, sense.

Even Zemeckis' goosing of the audience is unimaginative. The audience at Monday's screening flinched and squealed at all the right moments, but those reactions are due to someone popping into frame or upturned volume for Alan Silvestri's musical stings. How many times do you let someone creep up behind you and say "Boo" before telling him to cut it out? Zemeckis is the guy who persists.

Zemeckis does fiddle well with comic relief, often raising a chuckle with a simple jump cut or a flash of playful humor. Ford's easy way with one-liners helps. The relief either comes from tension release or from being allowed to laugh at the proceedings without seeming rude.

It's difficult to hold back when Claire thumbs through keepsakes and finds everything we need to know about the Spencer family in precisely the right order. That bathtub dilemma goes . . . so . . . slow that you wonder if Zemeckis really did see Psycho. He continually extends his movie several edits beyond stealth, approaching sluggishness.

Cinematographer and frequent Zemeckis collaborator Don Burgess (Forrest Gump, Contact) provides plenty of striking images to linger upon. The New England settings are enviably cozy. What Lies Beneath resembles a film you want to believe in, but it's superficial credibility.

Gregg's screenplay points out each eventually important fact along the way. We learn that cell phone reception fails in the middle of a certain bridge and know it'll come into play later. Same with a certain lab chemical and even a hair dryer. Only a pair of pros like Ford and Pfeiffer could keep this plot at least dubious.

What Lies Beneath

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