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In the Cut

Love Hurts

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Frannie Avery (Meg Ryan) has locked herself away. We know this because we see her wake up dead-eyed and hear her communicate in weary ironic grunts. She teaches English without enthusiasm at some low-budget Manhattan college. A trip to a dive bar's subterranean restroom, though, proves titillating when Frannie stumbles across a couple engaged in a sex act, and watches. The pair is obscured by shadows, but close-up shots of a distinctive tattoo and blue-painted fingernails scream, "Remember these obvious details!"

Those are just the first of the seen-it-all-before aspects of In the Cut, a film that melds a woman's emotional awakening with a serial killer running amok, and fails to add anything new to either genre. Director Jane Campion (Portrait of a Lady, The Piano) has adapted Susanna Moore's 1995 novel (Moore and Campion share a screenplay credit) with a liberal dose of flashy style and a palpable sense of earnestness. But what unfolds is by turns hackneyed, obtuse enough to bore and, for armchair psychologists, ultimately insulting to both sexes: What women need is a good dose of sex and violence to get 'em feeling alive -- and a new ending designed to please box offices.

Soon after Frannie's bar visit, an aggressive cop, Malloy (Mark Ruffalo), turns up at her apartment. Does she know anything about some body parts found in her yard? A gal who's been "disarticulated"? And does she notice that Malloy has the very same tattoo as the guy in the bar? I sure did! Even though he seems like an uncouth jerk (who might be a serial killer), Frannie lets her sad-eyed half-sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) talk her into meeting Malloy for a drink. Malloy's even jerkier partner, Rodriguez (Nick Damici), ruins the date. And then -- what chance? -- Frannie is mugged on the way home by an unseen assailant. Frightened, she rings Malloy, they meet at her flat and he seduces her by recreating Frannie's mugging complete with headlock (cops know all the best moves).

The continued slayings, police investigation and Frannie-Malloy courtship are then intertwined into a tangle of sex, violence, suspicion and too many clues. The killer has to be one of Frannie's few contacts: Malloy; Rodriguez, who has aggression issues with women; her stalking ex-boyfriend John (Kevin Bacon), who's in medical school (i.e. good at disarticulating bodies); or her sulky student Cornelius (Sharrieff Pugh), who turns in a paper, literally covered in blood, arguing for serial killer John Wayne Gacy's innocence. This is one of those murder mysteries where the path to knowledge is impeded only by the prodigious amount of red herrings -- and it well proves the maxim that the more fish are presented the easier it is to spot the murderer among them.

There is something off-putting about the story's conceit that women have to become vulnerable -- literally open up to man or maybe knife -- in order to fully feel human. There's a fine line between taking a risk for love -- a romantically noble idea -- and simply being a pathetic victim or a numbskull. I should hope it's only in bad fiction that women quickly bed the investigating officer whom they suspect is the killer. Men fare no better here, as they're all presented as twisted sexual predators.

Ruffalo is an engaging actor (even though the film has him channeling the hammiest NYPD Blue cop talk), and he and Leigh will survive this outing. Meg Ryan might have miscalculated. She does get way naked submitting to sweaty sex acts; I suppose it's one way to dispel her cutie-pie image, but it feels more like late-career desperation than personal liberation. Yet for all the nudity, when her face does emerge from behind hair and sunglasses, Ryan mostly exhibits various degrees of expressionlessness; she's still remote and hence not sympathetic.

The production design crew worked overtime -- and unfortunately, that's part of the problem. Any film that opens with a "storm" of flower petals in lower Manhattan makes me nervous. Frannie -- who we know is wandering spiritually -- bunks above a storefront psychic, her apartment cluttered with wind chimes (no wonder she never heard a body part landing in her garden outside) and mobiles. Her walls are covered with disjointed -- or possibly "disarticulated" -- words, snippets of language and slang on paper, and those magnetic poetry pieces.

Frannie's journey into darkness is presented literally: Each time she descends into the subway, another portent is revealed -- above her head in that placarded poetry public transit systems toss up among the ads. "For I had wandered off from the straight path," warns Dante, next to "Ever charge your fare card?" And only exaggerated caricatures of sex and death rituals share the subway with Frannie: two men carrying an enormous funeral floral display for "Mom" and the women of a wedding party, the morose-looking bride in full fluffy white regalia.

In the Cut is weirdly overheated yet flat; it's a 1970s-style psycho-sexual urban-jungle thriller like Looking for Mr. Goodbar and Cruising filtered through an arthouse lens, complete with overt symbolism, literary pretentions and jumpy, fuzzy-focused cameras. It just barely updates the frigid-librarian-who-just-needs-to-get-unbuttoned scenario -- but now with added garroting!

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