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Power Failure Triggers Unsettling ‘Effect’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Talk about life imitating art: When the recent nine-state power failure occurred, “The Trigger Effect” was already in the can. But is it art? The quick answer is that it’s not bad but could have been better. It’s stronger in its overall telling of a blackout and its increasingly ominous consequences and implications than in developing its key three characters and their interactions in the face of growing crisis.

Early on, writer David Koepp, in his directorial debut, effectively captures the free-floating anger that permeates everyday life in America, where too many people are stressed out, too easily frustrated and too frequently rude to one another.

A young black man (Richard T. Jones) is outraged when a young white woman blithely cuts in front of him (and everyone else) at a multiplex concession counter. Once inside a theater, the picture having already started, he loudly complains about the incident to his waiting friend, which in turn prompts a glaring “be quiet” look from a woman (Elisabeth Shue), which in turns prompts a racist put-down from the black man. After the lights go up, the woman’s husband (Kyle MacLachlan) wonders whether he should have sprung to his wife’s defense.

Right from the start Koepp has set in motion two subtexts that will clash throughout his film, intentionally or otherwise. On the one hand, Koepp makes clear how artificial is our existence, how helpless we are when there’s a glitch in our mechanized society, and how a power failure--or similar breakdown--threatens to shred the already-strained fabric of our society. Koepp suggests--and pretty persuasively, too--that a power failure, one that also ties up phone service, can in the course of several days swiftly reduce people to armed cavemen at a time when in so many places across the country our sense of community has waned to the extent that we barely know our neighbors.

Mutual trust is the basis of society, Koepp makes clear, but it can be awesomely difficult to establish at a time when a potential disaster has the effect of unleashing wave upon wave of pent-up, barely contained paranoia.

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So far so good. The trouble is that whether he means to or not Koepp sends the message that there’s nothing like a power failure to energize a guy some might consider a wimp into becoming a hero--and recharge his and his wife’s love life as well. You have the feeling, though, that Koepp is not really acknowledging these sentiments even though he’s exploiting them. If he had, he might have arrived at an ironic paradox: Disasters warn us of modern society’s peculiar fragility and vulnerability, but without them (or, by extension, war) how’s a man--especially a suburban yuppie pulling down $100,000 a year--going to become a real man?

Koepp would have been better off allowing MacLachlan’s Matthew to proceed in the Henry Fonda/James Stewart mold of the decent, quiet All-American husband and father who reveals great courage and strength of character under pressure. But, no, Koepp has to have Dermot Mulroney show up out of the blue to stir up some sexual tension. Mulroney’s Joe is a macho construction worker, jealous of his old pal Matthew’s success (at whatever white-collar profession it is that he pursues) and attracted to Shue’s beautiful Annie, who hasn’t been getting much loving from her husband lately. As it turns out, Joe’s fundamentally gratuitous and distracting presence is mainly a momentary diversion before Matthew and Annie have to make some major survival decisions.

Despite conflicted circumstances, the cast is capable, but there’s a feeling of loose ends, an overall lack of cohesiveness to this good-looking film. “The Trigger Effect” is on-target when it comes to the ills of modern society but is charged with ambivalence as to what makes a hero.

* MPAA rating: R, for language and some violence. Times guidelines: The film’s depiction of a power failure and its consequences may be too intense for small children.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

‘The Trigger Effect’

Kyle MacLachlan: Matthew

Elisabeth Shue: Annie

Dermot Mulroney: Joe

Richard T. Jones: Raymond

A Gramercy Pictures release. Writer-director David Koepp. Producer Michael Grillo. Executive producers Walter Parkes, Laurie MacDonald, Gerald R. Molen. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel. Editor Jill Savitt. Costumes Dana Allyson. Music James Newton Howard. Production designer Howard Cummings. Art director Jeff Knipp. Set decorator Larry Dias. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.


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