Music Box (Costa-Gavras, 1989)
[originally posted 16May2000]
This movie had every possible ingredient one could put together to come up with a film I don’t like. The annoying Jessica Lange in the lead role. Armin Mueller-Stahl while on the downward slide. (If you don’t believe me, check out the last, say, ten or so things he’s done at imdb. Then come back and tell me I’m wrong.) Writing by the abominable Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct, Jade, Showgirls) and direction by Costa-Gavras in his “I’m such an artist I can drop my first name!” phase. Yep– with the exception of Julia Roberts and Kevin Costner showing up, this one has every last ingredient to make it a perfectly awful film. So why isn’t it?
This is the weirdly absorbing tale of a Hungarian immigrant charged with war crimes forty years after coming to America; his daughter, who also happens to be his lawyer; her son, the closest member of the family to the immigrant (quite ably played by Mueller-Stahl; Lukas Haas plays the kid); the annoying son (Michael Rooker’s best performance since Henry, and perhaps his last good one to date); the annoying prosecuting attorney (slimily done to the hilt by the always-invigorating Frederic Forrest); and perhaps some of the best, if least believable, courtroom-drama scenes this side of Law and Order.
I say “weirdly absorbing” because there’s really nothing out of the ordinary about this tale, aside from the fact that some otherwise-workmanlike actors turned in the performances of their careers in this movie, the writing is so unlike Eszterhas’ usual tripe that one suspects a ghostwriter, and Costa-Gravas (whose first name, if you want to piss him off, is Konstantinos) must have thought he was directing in Europe, because he never made another American film this good. The character sketches are kept simple, and yet they’re not parodies; questions are raised and answered, but the movie never becomes an easily-categorizable whodunit; and everyone is just so damn believable that it all works. Score one for the guys who never did anything right before. ***