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By Alan Scherstuhl
Short Cuts meets Pulp Fiction! That, no doubt, is how the script for 2 days in the valley was sold, but it's not quite either movie. It's more engaging than the former, less imaginative and intelligent than the latter, and a good deal more sentimental than either.
This comedy-thriller sets in motion about a dozen diverse characters--two of them dogs--in the San Fernando Valley, and gradually connects them. Based on the mischief most of his characters are up to, John Herzfeld, the writer-director, seems to be saying that mischief is the Valley's major product--if you aren't making it, you're sure to be its object.
James Spader is Lee, a cool, smug, bespectacled professional killer; Danny Aiello is his associate Dosmo, a hotheaded, amateurish, toupeed would-be professional killer. Their intended victim Roy (Peter Horton) is the philandering husband of Olympic skier Becky (Teri Hatcher). Helga (Charlize Theron) is Spader's deadly blond moll.
Allan (Greg Cruttwell) is a rich, odious art dealer; Susan (Glenne Headly) is his put-upon girl Friday; and Audrey (Marsha Mason) is his sister, a nurse. Paul Mazursky is Teddy Peppers, a washed-up film director who's considering suicide. And since no L.A. story would be complete without cops, Jeff Daniels and Eric Stoltz play a pair of vice dicks who stumble onto intrigue by accident.
Oh, yes, and the dogs. One is Cruttwell's pride and joy, the other is Mazursky's last friend. They embody both innocence and loyalty, traits lacking in many of the human characters, and the more the people in the film are like the dogs, the more Herzfeld sympathizes with them.
Headly, for instance, follows the intolerable Cruttwell around faithfully, enduring his stupid insults to her appearance without a word. Stoltz is a homicide-detective wanna-be who feels sorry for (and a bit captivated by) the young Vietnamese masseuse he's supposed to bust. Aiello's hopeless as a hit man, but proves a mensch as a hostage taker: He cooks pasta for his captives.
There's nothing terribly profound or new in all of this, but Herzfeld blends the plot lines deftly, cinematographer Oliver Wood shoots fine pastels of the upscale L.A. settings, and there's a sharp score by Anthony Marinelli. More important, the actors dig into their snazzy, irresistibly superficial roles with obvious relish.
Spader's delight is the most evident. Having been cast endlessly as the sensitive preppie paragon, the chance to be sadistic and arrogant clearly makes his day. The chameleonic Headly here has a sort of frazzled cuddliness that's extremely winning, and Cruttwell, who was the rotten boyfriend in Naked, is no less effective as a rotten boss.
Best of all, perhaps, is Mazursky's sad-sack has-been, who uses an Emmy as a toilet-paper roller. His face is slack with resignation to defeat, but there's an observant intelligence in his eyes even in despair. As he's drawn further and further into the tangle of plot, you want to tell him: Take notes; this could be your comeback script!
Herzfeld, a veteran TV writer/producer/actor who once won an Emmy for an after-school special, is smart enough to avoid the sour, sophomoric cynicism that can wreck this sort of hip confection. While corruption may be only one stumbling misstep away in his Valley, it's just as clear that Herzfeld has not given up the Hollywood idea that love, opportunity and a new beginning might also be just around the corner--even for an aging, down-on-his-luck film director (the film is billed as "A Redemption Production"). 2 days in the valley is that rare film that's actually saved by sentiment.
--M. V. Moorhead
2 days in the valley:
Directed by John Herzfeld; with Danny Aiello, James Spader, Glenne Headly, Eric Stoltz, Greg Cruttwell, Paul Mazursky, Teri Hatcher, Peter Horton and Charlize Theron.
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