What Lies Beneath
What Lies Beneath

USA, 2000. Rated PG-13. 126 minutes.

Cast: Michelle Pfeiffer, Harrison Ford, Diana Scarwid, Miranda Otto, James Remar, Joe Morton, Amber Valletta, Victoria Birdwell, Katharine Towne
Writers: Sarah Kernochan (story), Clark Gregg (story and screenplay)
Music: Alan Silvestri
Cinematography: Don Burgess
Producers: Jack Rapke, Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis
Director: Robert Zemeckis


Grade: B- Review by Carlo Cavagna

I  hate the fact that I enjoyed this movie. A slick cross between a Hitchcock movie (two in particular, but to identify them would give away too much) and Stir of Echoes, What Lies Beneath is a supernatural thriller whose plot struggles to hold water. It's the sort of thriller where the twists and surprises are decided first, and then the writers hang the story around those twists as best they can. This became evident to me only in retrospect. During its two hour running time, What Lies Beneath is effective... annoyingly so.

If you've seen the trailer–or even if you've seen the tag line–the first third of What Lies Beneath will drag a bit, because you already know the basic premise. (I won't describe it in case you haven't.) Claire and Norman Spencer (Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford) are left all alone in their Vermont mansion after Claire's daughter Caitlin (Katharine Towne) heads to college... or are they? Someone or something is going bump in the night, and whatever it is apparently has a thing about baths, because every time Pfeiffer turns around, the tub is full. At the same time, there are odd goings-on at the new neighbors' house. Claire begins to suspect something sinister has happened. Norman begins to suspect Claire is cracking up. Ford and Pfeiffer in What Lies Beneath

Even though much of it is conventional Hollywood stuff, What Lies Beneath does have its thrills. It's a shame those surprises are introduced by Silvestri's unimaginative make!-‘em!-jump! score, which takes some of the edge off. I suppose anyone with half a brain can guess halfway through where this is all headed. Of course, I didn't guess myself, so what does that say about me?

What Lies Beneath works–to the extent that it works–because of Robert Zemeckis, director of Forrest Gump, Back to the Future, Contact, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and many other successful films. Zemeckis is synonymous with slick, but he does have an impressive record of making the most out of material even when it's weak. He gets an audience to care about what's going on in a story rather than think about what's wrong with the story. He knows how to entertain.
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Michelle Pfeiffer is another reason the material works. Though Harrison Ford has first billing, Pfeiffer is the center of the film. She is in practically every scene. There can be no doubt that she is a gifted, charismatic, and beautiful actor–she gives a strong performance, even when she is required to depart drastically from her character in one silly episode. Lately Pfeiffer's been surrounding herself with children in everything she does (One Fine Day, The Story of Us, The Deep End of the Ocean), probably because she loves being a parent herself. She takes a break from the kids in What Lies Beneath (it has an empty-nest theme instead), but it doesn't decisively end her recent string of mediocre films. She's been headlining big-studio Hollywood movies for too long–wouldn't it be nice to see her as a member of an ensemble cast in an independent film?

The same is true of Ford. Let's face it, Ford hasn't made a great movie in ages. Air Force One was entertaining (don't tell anyone I said so), but The Devil's Own, Sabrina, and Random Hearts ranged from mediocre to awful. Even The Fugitive was overrated. Good, yes. But an Oscar™ nomination for Best Picture? Come to think of it, Ford hasn't had a decent haircut in ages, either. I think Presumed Innocent ushered in what film historians will one day refer to as Ford's Bad Hair Period. The hairdressers have tamed that bizarre orange afro Ford sported in Six Days, Seven Nights and at most recent public appearances, and he still looks better with his shirt off than most twenty-year-olds. But he's starting to show his age (58), and he rarely flashes that famous grin anymore. In What Lies Beneath, Ford is effective, but not very dynamic.

Because of Zemeckis, Pfeiffer, and the glossy production, I walked out of What Lies Beneath feeling like I'd just seen a very good thriller, you might, too. But the irritation I experienced afterwards at the plot problems and the cliches requires me to lower my rating to a B-. Part of the joy of a movie is savoring it later, going back over the good parts and the intriguing details in your mind. Great movies linger for a long time, other movies quickly fade, and some, like What Lies Beneath, leave a sour taste in your mouth. It's a decent popcorn movie for adults, but what lies beneath? Not much.

Review © July 2000 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2000 Dreamworks SKG. All Rights Reserved.

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