Pelican Brief, The: Pakula’s Routine Thriller, Starring Julia Roberts

Alan Pakula’s curiously disappointing feature, The Pelican Brief, is a routine thriller.

The movie reaffirms my belief that John Gresham’s best-selling novels are certainly more fun to read than to watch on the big screen. Earlier this year, The Firm, a ludicrously flawed film, co-starring Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman, dominated the summer’s box-office.

Regrettably, Gresham’s latest screen adaptation, which is Julia Roberts’ comeback vehicle after an absence of two years, is much worse than The Firm. Not so much because of the quality of the material as for its hack direction. I was appalled to see Alan Pakula, usually a meticulous craftsman, work as a routine Hollywood director. As a film, Pelican Brief lacks savvy, visual style and or any other distinction.

There is also the problem of credibility: Does anyone believe in a conspiracy tale revolving around Darby Shaw, a young law student who comes up with a theory of who murdered two Supreme Court justices. The political climate has also changed considerably since the 1970s, when excellent conspiracy movies were made and absorbed by the audience, including Pakula’s own All the President Men and Sydney Pollack’s Three Day of the Condors, which starred Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway.

In Pelican Brief, two Supreme Court Justices get murdered on the same night by a contract hit man. A Tulane University student (Julia Roberts) becomes intrigued with the bizarre events and, following research, she comes up with a brief detailing the scenario for the killings. Roberts’ professor (Sam Shepard), who’s also her lover, glances at the brief and passes it along to his friend at the FBI (Jonh Heard). Shortly after, the professor dies when his car explodes from a planted bomb intended for Roberts (they had a fight that night and she declined to go home with him).

As might be expected, the brief soon gets to president (Robert Culp) and his chief of staff (Tony Goldwyn) and both fear it might implicate the White House. In the meantime, Roberts hooks up with newspaper reporter Gray Grantham (Denzel Washington), who’s already pursuing the story on his own. The rest of the thriller is rather formulaic, containing the requisite cat-and-mouth chases, which take place in dark alleys, parking lots, chic hotels, etc.

Last month, when I interviewed Denzel Washington for his work in the AIDS movie, Philadelphia, he refused to discuss his role in Pelican Brief, though he gives a most honorable performance. “Let’s say,” said the talented star, “that for three weeks they filmed the scene in which Julia Roberts and I try to escape from a parking lot.”

That’s a pretty accurate summary of the entire film. Yet, judging by its box-office receipts, a lot of people apparently consider this picture to be a diverting entertainment.