Devil’s Advocate

One of my favorite underrated scripts, by Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy (who later went on to write two more of my favorite scripts, The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy), my favorite Taylor Hackford film and, probably, my favorite Keanu Reeves performance (it’s been a while since I’ve seen Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but I remember last time it made me cry). Plus it’s got Charlize Theron so young she’s still got baby fat.

It seems, plainly, to be a cross between The Firm and Rosemary’s Baby, and while it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the latter, it pretty easily clears the bar (sorry) of the former. It is flatly ridiculous but also well-observed dramatically and morally complex.

It’s not an unusually long movie, but because it’s structurally a little odd it can sometimes feel that way. There’s a fourteen-minute prologue set in Florida, the second act kicks in at 57 minutes, third at 1:38 or so, the movie winding up at 2:16 or so. Because the plot is complex and multi-leveled, it seems like it has too many climaxes, but by the end you can see how all of those things were part of the whole picture (and there was, apparently, more that got cut).

The strength of the script is that it shows, in mostly credible and behavioral terms, the way souls become corrupted. It shows that in real life, there is no midnight meeting at the crossroads with the devil, there is only a series of tiny decisions to be made, day after day after day, that take you further away from “good” and closer to “bad.” Thing is, it doesn’t even really say “bad:” in Pacino’s big monologue at the climax, he explains that all Satan wants is for humans to be happy. And to be happy, humanity only has to give up its guilt. “Guilt is a sack of bricks,” says Satan. “All you have to do is set it down.” Or, as Charlize puts it at one point after a traumatic day of shopping, “Everything is a goddamned test!”

For Charlize, temptation comes in the form of sophistication. In some of the best scenes in the movie, the other wives at the law firm gently pressure her into being hipper, more jaded, more “cool.” The unease that small-town gal Charlize feels thrust into the world of New York highlife is palpable. Just small little choices like getting a new haircut or going against your instincts on decorating ideas become weighted with unexpected morality.

For Keanu, the tempation comes in the form of advancement. If he just gets this job, if he just wins this case, if he just spends this one night away from his wife, then he’ll have what he wants and can be the person he needs to be. There’s one scene toward the end of Act II where he explains all this to Pacino, who suddenly gets a wistful, faraway look in his eye, probably thinking about his performance of these exact same ideas in (the admittedly superior) Godfather Part II.

Then there’s Pacino, drawing the curtain on his “volcanic” phase. He’s mostly delicious in this movie, only really pulling out the stops for the big speech at the end. The scene where he goes through the roof and into the stratosphere, however, requires him to a) tell Keanu that he’s The Devil, b) “explain” a whole bunch of stuff about God, Free Will and Man’s Place in the Universe, and c) convince him to have sex with Connie Nielsen, right there, on a table, in the room, right now. You can see where Pacino might have figured that soft-pedalling the delivery might not have properly sold the scene.

And I have to say, I’m a red-blooded man like anyone else, but I don’t think I could perform sexually, with Connie Nielsen or anyone else, while Al Pacino was standing next to me ranting about God at the top of his lungs. Or anywhere in the room, honestly, doing anything.

I’m a big fan of Charlize Theron in this movie. She’s quite believable and poignant, although she is also saddled with a scene that requires her to tearfully blurt out “They took my ovaries!”

The special effects, like those of many movies made in 1997, have not aged well. Saddest of all is the sculpture over Pacino’s desk that “comes to life” during the climax. The failure of this effect must be at least, in part, due to what I consider a painfully stupid foulup in the clearances dept at WB. They built a whole scene around this sculpture, which they copied from a church in Washington, DC, then found out that the sculpture was a copyrighted work and the sculptor (and the church) didn’t particularly appreciate having it hang over Satan’s desk and didn’t particularly want to be “compensated” for the infringement. The statue had to be airbrushed over in early scenes and significantly altered in later scenes for the video release. Copyright infringement fans can read about the case here.


12 Responses to “Devil’s Advocate”
  1. greyaenigma says:

    I’m a big fan of Charlize Theron in this movie. She’s quite believable and poignant, although she is also saddled with a scene that requires her to tearfully blurt out “They took my ovaries!”

    Kind of an anti-Rosemary’s in that way.

    I remember kind of liking this movie when it came out. Now I’m kind of wanting to see it again in my kind of free time.

  2. eronanke says:

    I really enjoyed this movie.
    But I feel that Charlize cut and paste her performance here into “The Astronaut’s Wife” of a scared, upwardly mobile, wife.

    • greyaenigma says:

      Yeah, but that has Clea Duvall.

    • Todd says:

      But I feel that Charlize cut and paste her performance here into “The Astronaut’s Wife” of a scared, upwardly mobile, wife.

      I haven’t seen the movie, but she was probably asked to do so by the director.

      “Charlize, I don’t see the problem here. Remember Devil’s Advocate? Why can’t you just do that again?”


      “Look, kid, you’re a pretty girl with a nice figure. There ain’t no Oscars in your future. Just hit your mark and do what I say, ‘kay?”


      (Charlize does as she’s told, all the while vowing to prove the director wrong.)

  3. I can’t help but think you’re being overly kind to this movie, but then I do have to admit a certain morbid fascination with it. I know it’s not good, and yet, when it’s on cable, I can’t help but watch some of it. I agree, it must have been a pretty decent script–some of those thoughts, some of Pacino’s lines, must have seemed very fresh for a screenplay. Then somehow they just seem a bit too blunt in the execution. Then the blunt things beat you over the head.

    Agree with your assessment of Miss Theron’s performance. Though I never bought why the haircut was so upsetting to her. I just found myself wanting to yell “but you look so much BETTER this way!!!” Possibly because I sold out to the devil so long ago myself and naturally prefer the cool, chic NY haircut to the bible belt bighair she sported earlier in the film, as well as brunettes.

    • Todd says:

      Well, let’s not confuse Devil’s Advocate with, say, Late Spring or Through a Glass Darkly (or even Bergman’s horror movie Hour of the Wolf). It’s a piece of Hollywood product and a ridiculous premise. I just find it a ridiculous premise mounted and executed with a lot more grace and panache (with the exception of the overly purple climax) than I expected. When you look at its competition in the A-list horror genre of the day, it seems witty, literate and even unusually restrained.

    • eronanke says:

      If it’s the devil you sold your soul to, then sign me up. *I* want to have my own show, too.

      But I have always wanted to ask- how does it work? Did you wake up one day with the idea, or is it a slow-developing thing?

  4. toliverchap says:

    Good review as usual you should start doing a podcast of reviews. I agree about the film seeming long it sort of wore me down to a point where all the high drama and horror scene stuff at the end seemed super weird wasn’t Connie Nielsen also supposed to be like the daughter of the devil so Keanu would be having to preform incest in front of his father the Devil Pacino? I just remember it was complicated but the table was cool.

    • Todd says:

      The idea was that Pacino has had many, many children, but Keanu and Connie are here, now, and ready to go, to have child in time for the millenium (I guess the devil believed in the Y2K bug just like everyone else). Which just underscores my point about the climactic (sorry) scene: he’s not only asking (demanding!) that Keanu have sex in front of him, he’s asking him to have sex with his (half) sister! That, to me, would not be the piece of information I needed to get me going.

  5. kenshardik says:

    So an artist creates a piece to try and touch his/her viewers, to make them think, to have the work become part of the zeitgeist. And when his work achieves this, when his work inspires inclusion in another medium to invoke emotions and make the viewers of the new piece think and react, the artist says, “Hey! You’re making my work into something naughty! Don’t do that!”

    What a hypocritical piece of shit. You’d think that people – including the artist – would walk away from “Devil’s Advocate” thinking, “Even with all the temptations, with the lure of power and sex, the Devil is weaker than the conscience of a good man,” or at the very least thinking, “Wow, Pacino is really over-the-top here.”