The heroine of Roland Joffe's comic noir Goodbye Lover is Sandra, a modern femme fatale for whom seduction, murder and double-crossing are as natural as her severe blond china doll hairstyle is artificial. She's the heroine of the story, that is; the heroine of the production is Patricia Arquette, who plays Sandra, and whose performance saves Goodbye Lover from an obscurity it really deserves. That generic title fits the film all too well--shorn of its star, it's a quite routine black-comedy/mystery tricked out by an ambitious director, a classy cast, and a first-rate cinematographer.
The gag behind the characterization of Sandra is that she goes through the motions of being a good girl. She plays the charming wife and the churchgoer in public, while cheating on her husband (Dermot Mulroney), who drinks, with his brother and co-worker (Don Johnson). This is the filmmaker's notion of a telling commentary on our times. We're apparently supposed to be so caught up in savoring this rich, stinging irony that we'll overlook plot gaffes like a supposed criminal mastermind who uses an ATM card near the scene of a murder.
And, to some extent, we do. Arquette's acting--and, more important, her presence--transcends the plot clumsiness and the yawny satirical ideas. With her half-awake eyes, her face somehow angular and infantile at the same time, and her placidly sexy voice, Sandra is compelling even if the plot that's been built around her is purely Cinemax-at-three-in-the-morning stuff. There's something essentially sweet, almost maternal, to Arquette in every role she plays, and this quality makes her especially amusing as deadly female. A fatale should always be attractive, of course, but Sandra is more--she's likable.
Likability counts for a lot in this picture, actually. Two of the other actors have it, and they also contribute much to the tolerability of Goodbye Lover. A good-sized chunk of the film is seen primarily from the point of view of Sandra's jittery, guilt-chased brother-in-law/lover, and Johnson, who looks terrific, brings frazzled comic energy to this anxious adulterer. He's the most endearing sap that the noir genre has offered us in a while, and that's not meant as faint praise--the genre needs good saps if it's going to work. In 1994, Linda Fiorentino gave a classic performance as a fatale in John Dahl's The Last Seduction, but the impact of her turn was greatly reduced by the performance of a miscast Peter Berg as the brainless sucker she dupes. He was unworthy of her attention; it was as if we were supposed to be impressed by watching Julia Child hard-boil an egg.
Almost as engaging is Ellen DeGeneres as the bedraggled L.A. police detective looking into the murder to which the plot leads. The work that DeGeneres does here--especially in the last couple of scenes--and in her other recent feature work suggests that there may be more range and flexibility in her discursive vocal patterns than was evident in her standup and TV acting. All that holds her back in Goodbye Lover is the dreary dialogue she's stuck with. The script, by Phoenix playwright Ron Peer with some reworking by Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow, gives her a square and dull-witted partner (Ray McKinnon) to insult, and these scenes are pitched way too broadly--they play like outtakes from a rejected sitcom pilot.
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But then, director Joffe is new to comedy, or to intentional comedy, anyway. After a superb debut with The Killing Fields, the Brit's career has been a slide through honorable misfires like The Mission and City of Joy to the inadvertent hilarity of his glammed-out "adaptation" of The Scarlet Letter with Demi Moore as Hester Prynne, any scene of which is funnier than all of Goodbye Lover, though also more painful.
Still, in light of the performances by Arquette, Johnson, DeGeneres and a few of the other actors, of Joffe's smooth, visually concise direction, and of Dante Spinotti's elegant cinematography, Goodbye Lover isn't bad to sit through. What leaves a slightly galling aftertaste, I think, is the picture's smug delight in its own cheap cynicism. On the margins of the plot are characters like the privately lascivious, publicly pious conservative senator (Barry Newman) and the smiling, silky pastor of Arquette's church (Andre Gregory, reprising the same type of role he played in The Mosquito Coast).
Compared to the real Bill Clinton or Bob Packwood or Robert Schuller, these are feeble stock figures indeed, yet Goodbye Lover carries on as if it were something more than a fluffy good time--as if it were a withering indictment of corruption in contemporary America. To shoot fish in a barrel and then call yourself a marksman is pompous enough, but that pales beside missing those fish, and calling yourself a marksman anyway just because you recognized them as fish.
Directed by Roland Joffe; with Patricia Arquette.