PLAYING GOD

R
Reviews

Playing God is a glossy trip through the low life with Dr. Eugene Sands (David Duchovny), whose license was suspended ten months ago because he botched an operation while tanked up on drugs. The film opens with Sands' voice-over ruminations on the noir truism that every decision, no matter how apparently inconsequential, can be the decision that changes your life, probably for the worse. Sands' life changes when he witnesses a botched hit in the coolly sleazy club where he's gone to score. A man is shot, calling 911 is not an option, and Sands performs emergency on the bar rather than let the guy bleed to death on the floor. Next thing he knows, he's been kidnapped by Raymond Blossom (Timothy Hutton), an ambitious dealer in counterfeit merchandise who's hip to the value in having a disgraced doctor on call: In his line of work, people get hurt a lot. A guy could get to like the Lakers games, the strip joints, the fancy houses and the easy money, and Sands could really get to like the fact that, as long as he isn't bothered by phrases like 'practicing medicine without a license,' he can be a doctor again. It all seems too good to be true, which, of course, it is.

Raymond is at war with his former partners, the usual pack of Russian wackos, whom he's abandoning in favor of the greater growth opportunities offered by China. There's an FBI agent out to bust Raymond, the Russian Mafia is spitting mad about being cut out of the loop and Eugene is falling for Raymond's luscious girlfriend Claire (Angelina Jolie). Somewhere in Eugene's bloody adventures is a lesson about there being no such thing as hanging with the bad boys without getting your hands dirty, but it's pretty much lost in the production design. Vintage burlesque films, opulent architecture, deluxe lighting and super-cool clothes and accessories: For all Eugene's talk of hell and hitting bottom, things look pretty divinely decadent.

Under the stunning surface lies an obvious truth: Playing God is a star vehicle for David Duchovny, dedicated to showcasing his muted charm and offbeat good looks. As such, it does a very nice job, allowing him to do what he does best: brood, mope and look smart but troubled. It even gets him into a bathing suit, though 'X-Files' fans nursing fond memories of the fabled red speedo may find his more conservative big-screen swimsuit (something navy blue and baggy) a bit of a disappointment. Duchovny and Jolie, who's also a less-than-classical beauty, really are a strikingly attractive couple. Timothy Hutton is less well served by his punk surfer hair and cutting-edge club-kid wardrobe, which make him look rather like an over-the-hill, high-end rent boy.

First-time feature director Andy Wilson (he helmed several episodes of the U.K. series 'Cracker') has a great eye for seductively corrupt imagery: He makes it easy to get lost in Playing God's lush look and forget the fact that, while the screenplay is free of glaring plot holes, it seems to operate in an emotional vacuum. There's a lot of screaming and carrying on (this is, remember, a movie containing Russian gangsters), but there's a curious absence of weight to the performances. Duchovny is an extremely cool, laid-back actor-which may be why it took television to make him a star-and he appears to have set the tone for his co-stars: Even Hutton's inevitable mad-dog freakout scene doesn't crackle dangerously. Playing God is a completely enjoyable 90-some-odd minutes in Hell, L.A. style: If only the filmmakers hadn't felt the need to spoil it with redemption.

--Maitland McDonagh