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MOVIE REVIEWS : Ensemble ‘Flatliners’ Losing Proposition for Audience

Few recent movie trailers pack as much swanky sock as the one for “Flatliners” (citywide). Five med students huddled around a table. Rapid-fire close-ups: wary Julia Roberts, sneering Kiefer Sutherland, skeptical Kevin Bacon. The oscillating green line on the heart monitor that signals when a life stops. Shadows, streets, music pulsing--then suddenly . . . the screammm !!!! The line goes flat! Yaaahhh!!! And on comes the Voice of Doom, or at least Burbank, announcing: “Some lines shouldn’t be crossed.”

Some lines shouldn’t be crossed; some movies shouldn’t be watched. No, wait: That’s too cheap a shot. If “Flatliners” is anything at all, it’s watchable: aflame with Jan de Bont cinematography, deep-focus decor, an attractive cast. The movie’s problem, like many others recently, is that it isn’t any deeper, dramatically or psychologically, than its own trailer. It is the trailer: the long version.

“Flatliners” is set in a med school that seems to have taken up emergency headquarters in a Renaissance museum. Within its crazily photogenic confines, five students try to experience life after death scientifically. Tension is jacked to the max: There’s barely a scene of near-death and revival where somebody doesn’t run in at the last minute, or start screaming hysterically, or the equipment doesn’t blow a fuse. Afterwards, everyone cools out and gets into bidding wars about who goes under next.

“It’s a good day to die!” Kiefer Sutherland announces, with a mean-crazy look, in the first scene; obviously he’s just been watching “Little Big Man.” After this, you’d be willing to bet the movie wouldn’t have the chutzpah to follow up later with Sutherland saying: “It’s not a good day to die.” You’d be wrong.

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“Flatliners” is about life and death, atonement, remorse and conscience; in other words, it tries to replace blood and guts with philosophy. Good subjects, laudable intentions, dubious execution. Here, as four of the quintet experience life after death, you may be disconcerted to discover that the Great Beyond consists, respectively, of a breakfast food commercial set in a huge field with romping dog and boys, soft-core black-and-white porno with lots of multiple images, soaring helicopter mountain shots and what appears to be part of a slow-mo horror movie by Brian de Palma. Why risk death when all you need is cable TV?

The High Concept here: Death involves confronting past sins, which are roused to life and attack the sinners--like Sutherland, pursued by a demonic little boy (Joshua Rudoy) whom he apparently killed in life. The other sins range from nasty playground behavior to gluttony to William Baldwin’s compulsive seductions. Baldwin’s punishment--being harassed by women who act as if they want impersonal, manipulative sex--doesn’t seem much of a deterrent. It’s nice that a modern movie tries to encourage moral behavior, but screenwriter Peter Filardi’s notions of spiritual struggle are too trivial: dark nights of the soul on dry ice.

Joel Schumacher is often good at movies about young people in groups. His best, “St. Elmo’s Fire,” conveys yuppie angst with interestingly chilly sentimentality. But the fact that he uses such drop-dead decor and hyper-vigorous camera movement may be a clue that he knows he and the actors have to sweat bullets here.

Everybody does; Sutherland almost sweats grenades. Best of them is Bacon, putting real body English into his role of principled jock-atheist Labraccio, who thinks the afterlife is bull. (You’d be willing to bet the filmmakers wouldn’t have the chutzpah to make Labraccio undergo a religious conversion. You’d be wrong.) Bacon is supposed to be an ace with the resuscitators; when he’s about to jump-start somebody back into life, he rubs them together like an air hockey king warming up.

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But he’s trapped, like the others, in this great cavernous museum of a movie, with a dry little pea of an idea rattling down echoing hallways. It almost seems a cheat that the filmmakers don’t show any inkling that emptiness and flashy camp may tinge their “philosophy.” You’d be willing to bet they wouldn’t have the chutzpah to end their movie with heavenly choirs, clouds dissolving into clouds and a huge title-crawl proclaiming: “Redemption: It’s a wonderful feeling!” This time, you’d be right.

‘FLATLINERS’

A Columbia Pictures presentation of a Stonebridge Entertainment production. Producers Michael Douglas, Rick Bieber. Director Joel Schumacher. Script Peter Filardi. Camera Jan de Bont. Music James Newton Howard. Editor Robert Brown. Production design Eugenio Zanetti. Executive producers Scott Rudin, Michael Rachmil, Filardi. With Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, William Baldwin, Oliver Platt.

Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.

MPAA rating: R (under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian).


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