“The Placebo Effect” is a mystery that is none-too-mysterious, a thriller that is less than thrilling, and a star-positioning film for someone who is not suited for the brand of stardom being pushed here.
The bulk of the film takes place in a Chicago warehouse full of bad art. A gang of assassins (who could easily be mistaken for a collection of drama students, except that no one shows inclination towards acting skills) have gathered to await the arrival of the mysterious Sphinx and to plot the assassination of the Vice President. The film was actually made in 1998, so the Veep in question was Mr. Gore and not our currently elusive and evasive Mr. Cheney. In any event, this gathering is interrupted by the arrival of a Russian cab driver who claims he needs to use a telephone because his car battery died. The cabbie, whose accent recalls Andy Kaufman’s Latka Gravas and whose over-the-eyes hairdo recalls Veronica Lake, is treated with suspicion by the miscreants…and their doubts pay off as a quick frisk reveals a gun and a bulletproof vest on the Russkie’s body.
These charming scenes are intercut with flashforwards in which the cabbie, bruised and sporting a broken arm but nonetheless intact, is being interviewed by a Congressman in a police station regarding the planned assassination. Don’t ask why a single Congressman is using a Chicago police station to interview the witness to a planned political assassination. The Congressman is fairly confused by the proceedings, and things get trippier when the Russian cabbie drops his Volga-flowing accent in favor of a Noo Yawk honk and the revelation that he is actually an ex-Marine working as a CIA operative.
Does any of this make sense? Of course not. “The Placebo Effect” is silly stuff and over its run it begins to bear more than a little resemblance to the plot and payoff of “The Usual Suspects”…and if you can’t guess who Sphinx is, then go back and check the Kevin Spacey performance in “The Usual Suspects.” “The Placebo Effect” does try to be a little different by injecting some and odd diversions including subplots of gun-running in Bosnia, but that seems like a weak attempt to pump life and relevance into the tired story.
Much of the blame here belongs to Luciano Saber, who wrote the screenplay and is cast as the cabbie/spy. Saber looks good on camera (he wrote himself a few scenes where he gets to show off his well-toned torso), but his screenplay is so thuddingly serious that his on-screen persona is something of a bore. He wants to be a movie hero in “The Placebo Effect,” but the film’s low budget cancels the possibility of serious heroics…and the dialogue here, with grave whispers of government conspiracies and military betrayals, rings with a hollow promise of action sequences which never show up on screen. As a result, he is monotony in motion and the film often plays like a motionless picture–all talk with a bare minimum of anything happening. This is a shame since Saber is capable of being an intriguing actor if given an original, off-beat part; his most recent performance, as the virginal writer who falls for a massage parlor employee in Young Man Kang’s “Soap Girl,” shows he is capable of good humor and irony that is sadly absent from “The Placebo Effect.”
In fairness, “The Placebo Effect” does have a few fine elements: Francesco Quinn livens things up somewhat as the hot-headed gangster with one genuinely funny monologue regarding the dangerous brand of feminist power in Bugs Bunny cartoons, and Henryk Cymerman’s cinematography makes this shoestring production look classy and professional. There is also an intriguing opening credit sequence involving a nude woman posing for a portrait. As the camera glides about her curves and pinballs between her breasts, there is a degree of daring and playfulness which the following film never once tries to continue. The naked lady gets gunned down almost immediately after her appearance in the opening titles. Pity no one opened fire on the rest of the cast and kept the camera on the bare beauty for the remaining 90 minutes…now that would have been a placebo well worth swallowing!