Suspense and urgency fritter away in '88' minutes

At one point in the markedly un-thrilling 88 Minutes, Al Pacino, playing a forensic psychiatrist and college professor scrambling to solve his upcoming murder, or his being framed for murders, talks a Seattle taxi driver into surrendering his cab.

"A hundred bucks. I'm only going across town. But I have to drive."

It's not that he's in that much of a hurry. Sure, the "you have 88 Minutes to live" cell-phone messages started 40 minutes ago, but Dr. Gramm isn't panicked. He's puzzling over clues, or over the ways this confusing fiasco is being edited. He keeps stopping to answer his cell, holding up traffic.

Mainly though, he just wants to drive, or be filmed in the front seat of the car.

88 Minutes is filled with laughably strange lapses like this. But they aren't remotely as interesting as the on-screen dynamics of star and co-stars. Pacino is constantly "comforting" assorted female colleagues and shapely coeds from his college class - Amy Brenneman, Alicia Witt, LeeLee Sobieski.

This has more hugs than a week of Dr. Phils. But watch Al's hands as he hugs.

The movie is also a "can you hear me now?," drama, one of those pictures in which much of the interaction, many of the clues and all of the punch-lines are delivered by wireless. Pacino, given 88 Minutes to live by a mysterious stalker, makes call after call as he multi-tasks with his trusty assistant (Brenneman) and assorted students and an FBI agent ( William Forsythe), demanding fax after fax of research on his students, his acquaintances and everybody who had anything to do with this rapist-serial killer (Neal McDonough) whom he put on death row.

That killer was the first one to say to Dr. Gramm, years before, what he now hears in his cell phone, sees scrawled on his classroom overhead projector or etched into his vandalized Porsche.

"Tic-toc, Doc. You have" however many minutes he has left to live. Maybe he will be killed. Maybe he'll be framed for a series of murders that mimic the serial killer's crimes.

Thrillers run on ticking clocks, so this one should be a lulu. But director Jon Avnet (Fried Green Tomatoes, Red Corner) and his editors fritter away the suspense and urgency that Pacino's character should be living under. Yes, he runs here to there on occasion. If Al is top-billed, that great piled-up mound of hair he wears, blowing in the sprinting breeze, should get co-star status. But neither actors not production team are able to ratchet this thing up to exciting.

Awkward scenes with students that should, but don't, suggest suspicion and paranoia over which of them may be doing the condemned killer's dirty work; hints of Dr. Gramm's ethical lapses; flashbacks to this or that victim's gruesome torture and murder; plot contrivances like Gramm's insistence on "faxes" when he is running all over the city with nary a fax machine in sight, driving his own taxi - it's a puppy dog of a movie, chasing its tail, as confused as we are.

(Not as confusing as the Porsche that has its windows shattered in one scene, fixed in the next, but I quibble.)

Pacino is never a bore to watch. We keep waiting for that moment when he winks at the camera or lets fly a "Hoo-hah!" to tell us he's in on the joke. Maybe he wasn't. He seems as lost as we sometimes are. What's his catch phrase here?

"What next?"