Martin Mirkheim (Griffin Dunne) is the kind of hustling creep who just plows through the intense dislike people have for him. He's so transparently on the make that, in a way, his phoniness is his sincerity. He's an authentic phony.
"Search and Destroy," the directorial debut of the artist David Salle and adapted by Michael Almereyda from the Howard Korder play, begins with Martin trying to talk his way out of some IRS problems with the tax man (Martin Scorsese). It's a great comic set up: Martin is so unctuous that our sympathy shifts to the feds. The whole movie is like that. Martin barges into the precincts of an "Iron John"-style TV guru, Dr. Luthor Waxling (Dennis Hopper), and, although he's restrained by security officers and tied to a chair, he makes a pitch for the movie rights to Waxling's self-realization novel "Daniel Strong."
Rebuffed for lack of cash, he gets involved with Waxling's secretary Marie (Illeana Douglas), a shady businessman (Christopher Walken) and his fright-wigged drug connection (John Turturro). Martin's odyssey to find financing plays like a nightmarish cabaret act with assorted goofs and creepos. It's probably also meant as a sly satire on how movies actually do get financed.
Smart and facetious, "Search and Destroy" is the kind of film that, like Martin, flaunts its pushiness. It may be a little cackle of a movie, but it's not like anything else out there right now. Salle, whose artwork often combines abstract doodling and lyric realism on the same canvas, attempts something similar here with his visual scheme and tonal shifts. The collision of gags and rhapsody is off-putting; as the film goes on, our laughter keeps getting undercut by small terrors. The mixture of moods keeps you off balance. "Search and Destroy," like Martin, is not as easy to dismiss as you might wish it to be. It keeps outsmarting you.
Dunne played the role of Martin in the show's Broadway production, and he's perfected his gift for whiz-bang annoyingness. He's so obviously conniving that you can practically see the thought balloons above his head. When he gets close to Marie, and she pours out her script idea for a horror gore-fest, he's nonplussed but he's also charmed--he likes the fact that she's as weird as he is. (Dunne and Douglas work together with unabashed ease.)
Walken isn't playing anything here that he hasn't done to a T before, but that doesn't mean he doesn't do it surpassingly well. His character is like the reverse of Martin--calm and approachable on the outside, wacko at the core. Rounding out the cast of crazies, Turturro is alarmingly funny and Hopper serves up a definitive cameo of a huckster guru who swings his epiphanies like billy clubs.
Almereyda, the gifted writer-director of the neglected 1989 "Twister" and other films, has done a highly creditable job of adapting Korder's play, expanding Marie's role and tightening the horror. The dialogue has a glint to it, and so do the performers. The piece has its Mamet-y side--underneath it all is a drone about success and the American Dream and the fast buck and all that jazz. It comes across like one of Martin's cons. The only way to take this film seriously is to take it lightly.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong language and some violence, nudity and drug content. Times guidelines: It includes a drug deal and a few garish shootings .
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'Search and Destroy' Griffin Dunne: Martin Mirkheim Christopher Walken: Kim Ulander Illeana Douglas: Marie Dennis Hopper: Dr. Waxling A Martin Scorsese presentation of a Nu Image production in association with October Films and Autumn Pictures. Director David Salle. Producers Ruth Charny, Dan Lupovitz, Elie Cohen. Executive producer Avi Lerner, Danny Dimbort. Screenplay by Michael Almereyda, based on the play by Howard Korder. Cinematographer Bobby Bukowsi and Michael Spiller. Editor Michelle Gorchow. Costumes Donna Zakowska. Music Elmer Bernstein. Production design Robin Standefer. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
* At the Sunset 5, Sunset at Crescent Heights, (213) 848-3500; and the NuWilshire, 1314 Wilshire, (310) 394-8099.