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Flesh aand Bone fails to present promised insight

Flesh and Bone
Paramount Pictures.
Directed by Steve Kloves.
Starring Meg Ryan, Dennis Quaid,
and James Caan.
Loews Cheri

By Craig K. Chang
Staff Reporter

a man with a shady past and an arguably symbolic tattoo, a twisted father, murder, thievery, a haunted house, and, of course, a love affair between two people who don't really know who each other are. The story undoubtedly exhibits a tangled web of ironic melodrama, trying to lure us to some window into human nature. But it also rolls through as many of these supposedly incisive plot elements as possible, as if quantity guarantees an insightful picture. Trying to dig perhaps too deep, Flesh and Bone uncovers nothing intact except that profundity often teeters on the edge of gravity overlooking a vast expanse of plain ridiculousness.

The movie begins with a tense series of random shots around a rural house of an affluent family. The barking of a dog and the ordinary conversation within the house amid the pitch black night spells only trouble against the "thriller" backdrop they inevitably paint. Suddenly a boy appears. Of course, the family takes him in. Later that night, the boy lets his father into the house and they try to steal everything. An unexpected turn of events follows, and the boy's father shoots just about the whole family except for the baby girl, who is still crying. This, sadly, is the first and last effective scene in the movie.

After this entirely horrific depiction of a criminal and his son, the movie completely changes face. We meet the boy grown up, named Arlis Sweeney (Dennis Quaid), who stocks vending machines for a living. This introduction tells us nothing about his character (that is if one doesn't read too far into the symbolic nature of his occupation). Between these moments of absolute blandness, we get a few peeks at a mysterious girl in sunglasses who steals from the dead at funerals. By squinting really hard, we get a half-gist that Kloves is trying to liken Arlis to the obvious thief. But this minimally illustrated high-brow idea just doesn't jive with Arlis jamming colored chickens in and out of vending machines. In fact, these scenes aren't even worth bringing up -- the rustling of crops stirs more tension than anything that ever happens amidst this completely arbitrary, mid-West blur of beige wheat fields.

Soon Arlis picks up a drunk girl at a failed bachelor party. Perhaps this girl has some critical role. Unfortunately, when she wakes up, the movie doesn't even budge. The girl, Kay Davies (Meg Ryan), awakens only to reveal a whiny voice that just communicates flightiness. The flightiness has no layering; we simply hear one dismal half-joke after the other, and occasionally a convenient aphorism that unsuccessfully tries to tie the movie's now numerous bits of shrapnel into a tight bundle.

So far, Steve Kloves is no master of subtlety. At one point, Kay and Arlis have a bland heart-to-heart in a truck, where they recite a few of the movie's theme's in an annoyingly colloquial tongue. And when we then hear a baby crying, we can immediately predict the rest of the movie. It's no surprise when we discover that Kay Davies is the baby crying at the beginning of the movie. When Arlis falls in love with her, the given cruel irony of their situation doesn't even cause us to nod our head -- it seems the story has no other silly alternative.

Since the story is already at the end of its rope, Arlis's father reenters this cinematic fiasco. By now, nothing can shock the audience. The father, played by James Caan, happens to be running around with the sunglassed grave robber that before had nothing to do with the story. Slowly, Kloves jams together pieces of the puzzle where they don't fit.

Most frustrating is that we have to wait so long to get to pertinent material -- that is, the conflict between Arlis and his father. The movie, after all, did begin with the depiction of the two. Why has Arlis gone straight, despite his criminal childhood? Or has he just disguised an evil nature with a rote life of banality and ritual? These are questions given too little time to explore.

This kind of meandering through various themes detracts from Kloves's attempt at an explosion of ideas. The movie starts out trying to illustrate how small moments can change the course of everything (much like the final scene in One False Move). Arlis and Kay discuss these scary moments of instinct only briefly and too explicitly.

But the movie ends on the entirely different theme of how everyone is linked by common bonds of human nature, be it virtue or evil. In tacked-on scenes, Arlis's father argues this concept of kinship near the close of the movie. Whatever variation of evil runs through Arlis's father, the argument nevertheless ends on one finality -- he and Arlis are "flesh and bone," kin and thus the same.

At this point, we don't care how hard Steve Kloves tries to dig at the deepest throes of human nature. Great tension should lead up to Quaid's confronting his inner demons; if Arlis indeed has his father's bad blood, he can only destroy that part of him in one way.

But somehow the movie manages to end on an even more flaccid note than it held for the first two hours. Arlis's final confrontation with his father has altogether no poignancy. Even after what seems to be a final scene, the movie still refuses to end, chooses to tie up a few more loose ends, and loses what little momentum it managed to build. That about summarizes the entire movie's attitude -- a tiresome game of connect-the-dots that draws no picture.