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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Malice’ Rounds Up the Usual Thriller Suspects

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Malice,” the new thriller starring Alec Baldwin and Nicole Kidman, doesn’t have a whole lot on its mind except other thrillers. The borrowings or quasi-borrowings--ranging from prime Hitchcock to Hitchcock derivatives like “Pacific Heights”--give the film a peculiar kind of comfiness. It’s supposed to scare the wits out of you but the plethora of prior associations make it seem more like Old Home Week.

The setting is the archetypal sleepy New England college town--a sylvan glade waiting to be despoiled. A serial murderer has been terrorizing the co-eds and Andy (Bill Pullman), the dean of students, is alarmed. So is the local police investigator (Bebe Neuwirth), who talks tough and suspects everybody--even the rumply bookish Andy.

The plot kicks into gear when Jed (Baldwin), a former high school classmate of Andy’s, moves into the community as the new star surgeon. Jed is so supremely self-assured, inside the operating room and out, that he seems to be walking on water for most of the movie. When things get tough later on, he’s accused of having a God complex, to which he replies, only half-facetiously, “I am God.”

Andy’s wife, Tracy (Kidman), his former pupil and a volunteer in a children’s ward, dislikes Jed at first sight, which doesn’t, however, stop him from becoming a tenant in the couple’s spacious home. (Aren’t surgeons making enough these days to rent their own place?) When Tracy starts experiencing abdominal pains, Jed is pressed into service, which leads to the question: Is this the kind of guy you want rummaging around your innards?

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Harold Becker, directing from a script by Aaron Sorkin and Scott Frank, is proficient at keeping things taut despite the bagginess of many of the plot points. In an effort to keep the thrills coming the screenwriters scatter about too many loose ends; they don’t provide the precise cat-and-mouse plotting that used to be the hallmark of the well-made thriller but is now virtually nonexistent.

Instead the filmmakers throw in a lot of old standbys, including a lonely house on a cliff high above the hissing ocean, and cinematographer Gordon Willis keeps everything appropriately dark, for that noir -ish effect. “Malice” (citywide, rated R for sexuality, language and some violence) at least has the look of a first-rate thriller.

The performances are serviceable enough to at least keep you guessing for a while who’s on the level and who isn’t. Baldwin is fairly amusing when his character’s ego is puffed to bursting (which is most of the time). He makes Jed into a familiar monster: the doctor as self-anointed Savior. Anne Bancroft and George C. Scott turn up in separate cameos and they contrast perfectly--she overacts like crazy and he underplays to the point of somnolence.

There’s no pressing reason to see “Malice” because, in a sense, you’ve already seen it. And, if you wait a year or two, chances are you’ll be seeing bits of pieces of “Malice” in the next batch of so-so thrillers. And so it goes.

‘Malice’

Alec Baldwin: Jed

Nicole Kidman: Tracy

Bill Pullman: Andy

Bebe Neuwirth: Dana

A Columbia Pictures release of a Castle Rock Entertainment in association with New Line Cinema production. Director Harold Becker. Producers Rachel Pfeffer, Charles Mulvehill, Harold Becker. Executive producers Michael Hirsh, Patrick Loubert. Screenplay Aaron Sorkin, Scott Frank. Cinematographer Gordon Willis. Editor David Bretherton. Costumes Michael Kaplan. Music Jerry Goldsmith. Production design Philip Harrison. Art director Dianne Wager. Set designer Sydney Litwack. Set decorator Garrett Lewis, Tracey Doyle. Sound Robert Eber. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (for sexuality, language and some violence).

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