Don’t Say a Word: Gary Fleder’s Thriller Starring Michael Douglas

As generic as its title suggests, Don’t Say a Word is a routine psychological thriller, elevated by Michael Douglas’s strong presence and expert acting as an eminent yuppie shrink, whose 8-year-old daughter is kidnapped by a foreign (British) villain.

Lacking in-depth characterization, or any feeling for the central endangered nuclear family, Gary Fleder’s crafty but shallow suspenser is based on two gimmicks: The ransom is a big red diamond, and the key figure for unraveling its location is a mentally disturbed girl, nicely played by up-and-coming star, Brittany Murphy.

Each of Michael Douglas’ “white angst” thrillers has performed well at the box-office (most recently A Perfect Murder), and there’s no reason to doubt this one (which he co-produced) will deviate from the norm, particularly that there aren’t many new movies around and the public may seek undemanding entertainment, after being saturated with TV news for the past two weeks.

The kidnap-ransom movie, at the center of which there’s always a child, is one of the most commercially reliable subgenres in American crimers. Indeed, every couple of years, the Hollywood machine reinvents the formula with one or two new elements. Don’t Say a Word is not nearly as suspenseful or technically accomplished as the Mel Gibson star vehicle, Ransom (directed by Ron Howard 1996), but it certainly belongs–or aspires to belong–to the same universe: A white, middle-aged professional, who seems to have everything until his existence is utterly shattered when his child is abducted.

Michael Douglas has built his entire career over playing super-successful–the ultimate yuppie–New Yorkers, whose comfy upper-middle class life is suddenly thrown out of order. The only variant is the specific profession of his characters, ranging from lawyer (Fatal Attraction), to stockbroker (Wall Street), to investor (A Perfect Murder). One could add to this list Basic Instinct, which was set in San Francisco, and the quintessentially L.A. cautionary tale, Falling Down, in which Douglas embodied a disenfranchised American who goes off the deep end.

On paper, the first reel to fit this general pattern, though it becomes clear quite soon that the soulless, plot-driven screenplay by Anthony Peckman and Patrick Smith Kelly (who also scripted Perfect Murder) has nothing serious or deep to say about family values (or any other issue), and that its mere goal is to provide frivolous thrills.

A brief prologue set in 1991 depicts a heist that for a change goes absolutely right, until one of the accomplice decides to betray his boss and walk away with the prize: The $10 million diamond. Main yarn then jumps to the present, introducing Dr. Nathan Conrad (Douglas), whose specialty is troubled teenagers. With a reassuring yet slightly nervous tone (one of Douglas’s trademark), Conrad explains to his young patient, who had stolen panties from a girl’s locker, that masturbation is not a major crime to be embarrassed about; that most males, younger and older, are guilty of it. Driving home to his lovely wife, Aggie (Janssen) and daughter Jessie (Bartusiak), Conrad is reminded not to forget buying a Turkey for the Thanksgiving dinner.

Though anxious to get home, an urgent call from a colleague, Dr. Sachs (Platt), takes him to a psychiatric ward, where he’s asked to see a presumably catatonic woman, Elisabeth (Murphy), who has just been arrested for cruelly beating a man. Using his expert knowledge, Conrad immediately realizes that Murphy is not catatonic and that she’s hiding a devastating past, in which she witnessed her father’s execution in a subway station.

A nice domestic scene follows upon Conrad’s arrival at his home (which looks like the Ansonia Building on the Upper West Side). First, there’s the hide-and-seek game with Jessie, a premonition for what’s to come, then a sponge bath and sex with his bedridden wife, whose leg is in cast. The next morning, after preparing an ultra-indulgent breakfast for Aggie, Conrad realizes that Jessie is missing. Before he even has a chance to call the police, Conrad gets a phone call from a man named Patrick Koster (Bean), the Brit who was robbed off the diamond, who identifies himself as the kidnapper. Koster sets the ground rules for a almost impossible mission, namely, Conrad needs to unlock a six-digit mystery number, stored within the Elisabeth’s suffering brain.

Though utterly formulaic, the various limitations increase the yarn’s tension: It’s Thanksgiving Day, which means traffic will be bad due to Macy’s Parade; Conrad needs to unravel the secret code by 5 p.m.; his invalid wife can’t be of much help since she can’t move; and neither Conrad nor Aggie can use their cell phones as they’re under surveillance by the kidnappers.

Unfortunately, after the first hour, the movie goes downhill rapidly. One doesn’t have to be a “plausible,” as Hitchcock used to call the viewers looking for holes and contrivances in his stories, to detect the superficial and fraudulent plot. Arguably no recent Hollywood movie has done such positive service to the psychiatric occupation: In just two sessions, Conrad achieves a progress with his patient that’s worth a decade of therapy.

Police blockades and security systems in Don’t Say a Word are minor obstacles, for Conrad is able to talk smoothly to the cops, who end up escorting him; break into Dr. Sachs’s secretive files; and miraculously escape the mental hospital with Elisabeth on their way to a remote location, where the gem might be hidden.

The most movieish scenes belong to Aggie, whose cast proves to be a minor aggravation, when she’s forced to fight one of Koster’s henchmen. Feistily getting out of bed, she kicks butt better than her hubby, almost effortlessly killing an armed criminal. Precocious daughter Jessie is also a movieish creation, playing musical games with her abductor and telling him that “not answering questions is not very polite.” Later, Jessie finds a resourceful way to communicate with her distressed mom.

The scripters throw some secondary characters into the mix, such as a tough female detective, Sandra (Esposito), who arrives at the nick-of-time to fire one crucial shot. The climax, which is set at Hart’s Island, outside of New York, is particularly disappointing, including a lot of (literally) grave-digging at a cemetery.

Technically, Don’t Say a Word represents a step down for director Gary Fleder, after Kiss the Girls and even his debut, Things to Do In Denver When You’re Dead. Fleder gives the film a proficient but decidedly not stylish look, failing to use his gifted crew, specifically lenser Amir Mokri and composer Mark Isham, to an advantage. The only element the helmer benefits from and exploits is his star, Michael Douglas.

Douglas became a superstar when he finally decided to play flawed characters with an edge, and act more like his florid father than like a bland TV personality. His track record with hot-button movies (Wall Street, Disclosure) will attract viewers to Don’t Say a Word, which is perfectly watchable solely due to his charismatic presence.

Cast: Michael Douglas, Sean Bean, Brittany Murphy, Skye McCole Bartusiak, Famke Janssen, Oliver Platt, Jennifer Esposito