How the mighty (well, the marketable anyway) have fallen. Not so long ago, it would have been difficult to imagine Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet or director Alan Parker involved with any but the most charmed of movie projects. American Beauty, Titanic, “The Commitments”-it’s a long way down to the lowbrow, button-pushing embarrassment that is “The Life of David Gale.”
Spacey gives the least credible, most colorless performance of his career in the role of a college professor and anti-death penalty activist whose life slips out of his hands as quickly as a slick bar of soap. Of course, the film’s creators have stacked the deck against him. As written, his character has a drinking problem. His wife is conducting a preposterous affair with some guy in Spain. And an undergraduate vixen has seduced him at a wild faculty bash and then publicly accused him of rape.
Things go from bad to worse-and that includes the writing-as Gale’s wife returns to the states long enough to leave with his son and the university asks him to vacate his post. In a cartoon of a downward spiral, the eminent author and academician is reduced in a single stroke to living in squalor. I know I was supposed to feel bad for the poor shmuck but it was Spacey whose lot I bemoaned as I watched him play Gale walking the sleazy streets late at night and babbling drunkenly about Plato. Please.
The only bright spots left in his life are his high-ranking spot in an advocacy group called Deathwatch and his friendship with fellow activist Laura Linney. So, naturally, one gives him the boot and the other is revealed to be suffering from a fatal disease. At least until she’s found dead, naked, handcuffed and wearing a Hefty trash bag on her head.
Do I need to tell you who’s convicted of her murder? Fast forward six years and enter Winslet as an investigative reporter sent to interview Gale just days before he’s scheduled to die by lethal injection in a Texas prison. The doomed fellow tells the writer his story over a period of days. He claims to be innocent and, little by little, the young woman begins to believe him.
Meanwhile, ominous though senseless things happen to Winslet. A mysterious cowboy in a pickup follows her everywhere. Someone breaks into her motel room and ties a video tape to the light cord hanging from the ceiling. On the tape: footage of Linney in her death throes. Do I need to tell you she doesn’t say boo to the police?
Movie law requires that all stories about reporters interviewing soon to be executed prisoners culminate in a third act race against the clock to bring just-discovered evidence forward in time to save the unjustly condemned. I’m not giving anything away. Winslet’s race against the clock is teased in the picture’s opening sequence. What I can’t tell you is what happens right after she makes it back to the jail. That’s because the movie has a Big Surprise Twist.
And that’s about all it has. It certainly doesn’t have anything of importance to say on the subject of the death penalty. It’s far too contrived and implausible a house of cards. The movie certainly doesn’t have anything to offer in the goosebump department. Attempts to generate an atmosphere of yankee-gets-messed-with-by-scary rednecks paranoia result in a strictly made for TV level of menace. And the film doesn’t have anything but bad news for Spacey fans anxious for the actor to break a stinky streak that’s included duds like Pay It Forward, The Big Kahuna, The Shipping News and K-Pax.
The debate over capital punishment rages on. If “The Life of David Gale” succeeds at anything, it’s at offering opposing camps common ground. Almost everyone is sure to agree this picture is pretty much unpardonable.