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Dead man talking 

David Gale fails to spark death penalty debate

Winning the Best Actor Oscar for American Beauty now looks like the worst thing that could have happened to Kevin Spacey. Since then, he's been suppressing his best traits -- the icily witty sarcasm, the above-it-all magnetism -- that served him so well in playing hustlers and psychos, like in L.A. Confidential or Se7en.

Instead, Spacey has switched from victimizers to victims, portraying men with spiritual and at times physical scars in Pay it Forward and The Shipping News. It's admirable for the actor to work at expanding his repertoire, but Spacey has a faulty antenna for finding scripts that let him play against type. He now follows up his role as the saintly, imprisoned mental patient in K-PAX with a turn as a martyred, imprisoned death row inmate in The Life of David Gale. And though he's not back to form, he's the best thing about the contrived "issues thriller."

Despite having a name out of Beatrix Potter, Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) is a respected muckraker for a news magazine called News magazine. She gets a coveted offer to interview David Gale before his Texas execution in four days. Gale had been a respected philosophy professor, author and "death row abolitionist" before he is convicted of raping and murdering a colleague (Laura Linney), although he maintains he's been framed.

In the tradition of romantic comedies and buddy movies, Bitsey gets unwillingly paired with a partner, a naive but nice-looking intern named Zack (Gabriel Mann). Zack reads one of Gale's books, Dialogical Exhaustion, and expresses his belief in the author's innocence. "The murder's too clumsy -- this guy's a major intellectual!" says Zack, unaware that clumsiness and book smarts are hardly mutually exclusive.

Director Alan Parker luridly transitions in and out of Gale's flashbacks by distorting the film image and flashing words like "Revenge!" in rapid close-up. But Gale's backstory proves far more compelling than Bitsey's sleuthing. His downfall begins the night he debates the Texas governor on television. At a party afterward, Gale has an ill-advised bathroom hump with a troubled student (Rhona Mitra, looking like she's fresh from a Maxim cover shoot), and the morning after gets branded a sex criminal.

No charges are filed, but on politically correct college campuses, he becomes persona non grata, losing his family, home and job. Gale lectures drunkenly on street corners, and when trying to pull himself together, interviews for a job at "Radio Shed." The subplot gives Gale a means to cover its ideological bases, attacking political correctness as a sop to the right, just as the anti-death penalty theme appeals to the left.

Yet Spacey's best moments don't come from Gale's long, loud breakdown or his slow thaw with Bitsey, but from smaller incidents. At one point he jerks awake like a madman, hinting that his dreams are even worse than his reality. Later, Linney and Spacey share a quiet moment on a porch, their silences expressing a bumpy but affectionate friendship.

But Bitsey's race against the clock always intrudes, with Parker and Randolph laboring -- and failing -- to stir the viewers. In the film's very first shot, Bitsey's car overheats on a deserted road, and she takes off on foot. With a sinking feeling, we realize that she's clutching a key piece of evidence that will save a life. Throughout the film Bitsey and Jack try to catch up with a stalker in a cowboy hat, whom we know is important because he listens to opera, and in a Hollywood movie, opera's a sure portent of death.

The Life of David Gale feels like a by-product of the 2000 presidential election, and the criticisms of then-governor Bush's many executions. Parker and Randolph mean to use the thriller structure to score political points, but their intentions are too transparent, and even the last-minute twist can be spotted from miles away. By the end of The Life of David Gale, the suspense hasn't manipulated us, the discourse hasn't moved us, and the cast and audience alike collapse in dialogical exhaustion.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

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