Well, here's something we don't see very often. "Original Sin," based on the novel "Waltz Into Darkness" by Cornell Woolrich, is a motion picture that has enlisted the aide of two big stars to tell a melodramatic, overwrought potboiler. It plays like a cross between the latest installment of the direct-to-video erotica series, "Body Chemistry," and 1999's elegantly woven "The Talented Mr. Ripley," yet its occasional dips into pure insipid filmmaking are so loopy it sort of invokes a charm all its own.
Told through elongated flashbacks by American temptress Julia Russell (Angelina Jolie), who is in jail and about to be executed for an unknown crime, her troublesome ways lead her into the arms of Luis Vargas (Antonio Banderas), a wealthy, Cuban merchant who requests for a mail-order bride. She comes in the form of the bewitching Julia, who doesn't look like the picture that has been sent to him, but explains that she didn't want a man that was only looking for external beauty. Moving in with Luis and instantly getting married, Julia and Luis are both taken by surprise when they find that they truly are connecting and falling in love with one another.
Enter Detective Walter Downs (Thomas Jane), a man sent by Julia's sister to search for her whereabouts when she doesn't receive a reply to the letters she has mailed. Soon after, Julia disappears (along with practically all of Luis' bank account). Had Julia been merely deceiving Luis the entire time? And who exactly is she, when it is discovered that the real Julia Russell was murdered while on the ship transporting her to Cuba--the same one that the fraudulent "Julia" was on?
Written and directed by Michael Cristofer (who got his start with Jolie on the cable movie, "Gia"), "Original Sin" is a "Jeckyl and Hyde"-sort of tale, both in terms of plotting and payoff. Until the very end, the characters remain specters whose true intentions are always in question, and even then, their true selves are left open for debate. As a thriller set during the turn of the 20th-century, the film moves at a relatively slow pace, yet casts a spell of mystery of intrigue that is palpably felt. It features moments of sheer power and earnestness (and even a few surprising twists), and others that are so misdirected and ludicrously written, they must be seen to be believed. The movie is not a comedy, but judging from the near-consistent laughter that came from the audience, it has what it takes to become a camp classic. Like 1980's infamous "Mommie Dearest," the picture is serious-minded and ambitious, yet so incredibly banal as to become an unintentional riot.
To get an idea of just how goofy the movie can get, a key character blatantly shoots another right in front of two police officers, and then nonchalantly tells them that there's no need for him to get medical help--because he's now dead for good! In a "Naked Gun"-style spoof, this would be a comedic showstopper. In a serious period piece, it is so uninhibitedly oddball that it almost crosses over into the realm of brilliance for its sincerely clueless courageousness.
Just for keeping a straight face throughout, Antonio Banderas (2001's "Spy Kids") and Angelina Jolie (much better here than in this summer's "Tomb Raider") should receive well-earned accolades. Both actors bring an unexpected intensity to their roles that often manage to hide the technical inanities of the film, and for Jolie, this is her most challenging and impressive turn since 1999's "Girl, Interrupted," for which she won an Oscar. In a pivotal supporting role, Thomas Jane (1999's "Deep Blue Sea") is exceptional as the detective who teams up with Luis to find, and possibly murder, Julia. Jane has a smoldering profundity about him that calls upon the incomparable Russell Crowe for inspiration.
Of special note for those interested, Banderas and Jolie also perform a couple of sex scenes that are so prolonged and explicit (with Banderas getting ample opportunity to show off his backside, and Jolie exposing her double--ahem--assets), they could almost pass for soft-corn porn. How this got past the MPAA with an R-rating when the blasphemous organization unfairly strikes down upon every other sexual situation that occurs in today's movies is one for the stars.
I can't wholeheartedly recommend "Original Sin," although fans of the actors will certainly want to check them out in very good performances stuck in one of the weirdest big-budget movies to come around the pike in some time. Is it a laugh riot? An erotic thriller in the vein of "Red Shoe Diaries?" An involving romantic mystery that, as Julia Russell so eloquently puts it, "is not a love story, but a story about love?" You be the judge. One thing's for certain: "Original Sin" may not be looked upon as a particularly good movie (and it isn't), but it surely won't be forgotten.
©2001 by Dustin Putman