How's this for casting from hell-Keanu Reeves as a brilliant Southern lawyer, and Al Pacino as Satan. Reeves not only has to come across as smart, but he also has to maintain a believable accent. It comes and it goes (the accent, that is). Pacino gets to assume the role his bellowing, screeching, over-the-top alter ego was born to play, the Prince of Darkness. The hypnotic Pacino from Donnie Brasco and most everything prior to Scent of a Woman gets the boot in favor of the grating Pacino from Scent and City Hall. Reeves playing smart, Pacino playing loud. That's a heavy cross for any audience to bear.

The surprise is that the two actors are the least intolerable element of The Devil's Advocate. That distinction goes to the meandering script and overbaked direction. Director Taylor Hackford, who seemed to have nothing on his mind but heavy portentousness when making Dolores Claiborne, didn't get it out of his system. From the title card, with a blaze of flames licking a black screen, to the opening scene, where every slam of a door and footstep is sounded off with labored fury, there is no mistaking the fact that impending evil is clearly on the way. Reeves plays young criminal attorney Kevin Lomax, currently undefeated. The film begins with him defending an accused pedophile, as the young female victim relates all the sordid details of her story on the stand. How are we and Kevin able to tell whether or not his client is guilty? Well, the fact that he's masturbating to the girl's testimony right in the courtroom is a pretty good tip-off. Subtlety and nuance will clearly be absent from the menu.

So will entertainment. At two hours and too much change, The Devil's Advocate takes an eternity to get down to business. As Kevin is lured from his small Florida town to New York City by the financial benefits that come from working in the law firm run by Pacino's John Milton (wink, nudge), the film becomes ponderously schematic as it heads towards a revelation that's given away in the film's title and telegraphed at every turn. Isn't equating lawyers with Satan far too obvious to qualify as anything but an adolescent joke? The Devil's Advocate flirts with satire, with theological discussion, with the mechanics of a thriller and with something approaching a cautionary tale, but, like an adolescent, it's too self-satisfied and self-amused with its one joke to get over it and tell a story. It never seems to know what it wants to be, and betrays its lack of confidence by throwing in lame effects shots and obvious jokes to keep us awake.

And then it becomes downright uncomfortable and unpleasant. Charlize Theron plays Reeves' wife, a character who seems to exist for the sole purpose of being systematically defiled and violated, starting with her hair and going all the way down her body, and then back up again for good measure. The movie doesn't seem to have the first clue why it's doing this, and you're left with the dirty feeling of being witness to ugly, mindless exploitation.

The Devil's Advocate plods along on the winds of unpleasantness and mindlessness towards its climax, where a completely arbitrary, soapy plot twist is thrown into the mix, only to be topped off with an ending that cops out in spades. Pacino goes into full throttle, and actually has the finest moment of the film, a very entertaining diatribe about God. But it adds up to nothing. The final moments of The Devil's Advocate resemble And Justice for All, the 1979 Pacino film that dealt with the justice system with far more insight and biting humor than this film ever approaches. It only serves to remind us of better movies, better Pacino, and a justice system somehow less absurd than it appears to be today. It speaks volumes that, in just under 20 years, the failures of the justice system have become clearer to society, while its dramatic and satiric reflections have grown softer and tamer.

--David Luty