Eating For Two

Hannibal equates the viewer with its own insatiable hunger artist

In honor of Dr. Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter's consuming habits, what follows is an easily digestible capsule review of the hungrily anticipated followup to the Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs. Plot: meandering structure organized around three loosely connected story arcs, each climaxing in a set piece of toothsome gore. Pacing: First two courses take their time in arriving (zzzzzz), but the third rushes in like an eager waitron. Acting: In his second take on serial murderer Lecter, Sir Anthony Hopkins keeps the batter light to comic/scary effect, save for a couple of overdone sneers and one too many "okey-dokey"s. And Julianne Moore recovers from a solitary cry early on (must she always weep?) to forge an adequate FBI agent Clarice Starling, if one more ironic, sexual, and blank than Jodie Foster's. Chemistry: nonexistent for three-fourths of the movie (Clarice and Hannibal on different continents), then inconclusive (Clarice mostly unconscious). Cinematography: curiously flat though unflinching. Verdict: nauseating. Dig in!

Those of you who prefer not to think about what you swallow should probably stop reading now and run to the cineplex. No shame in that--you're in the majority. I have nieces (not vegetarians) who passed on seeing Chicken Run because they'd heard the chickens "have a hard time." There's a kid in Hannibal. He's a consumer. He's dissatisfied with what he ate yesterday, and hungry to try something new. He doesn't much care what it is. In Hannibal's heavy-handed, if well-targeted, satire, this child is Appetite. Appetite for destruction, you might say (summoning ghosts of devoured and discarded rock bands). If there's anything interesting at all about Hannibal, it is in the way the movie caters--like the Thomas Harris novel it draws from--to the viewer's mindless appetite for something new, while at the same time lambasting ("lamb-basting"?) her. Or, rather, me. And you. Our mindless appetite.

The Silence of the Lambs may or may not be a great movie. Hannibal, directed somewhat anonymously by Ridley Scott, is certainly not. Jonathan Demme's 1991 film about power featured finely nuanced acting, especially from Foster, whose fascination with and repulsion toward Lecter stood for our own. It teased the viewer with a salient, and urgent, mystery. It addressed social class, a rare issue for Hollywood. More bravely than Scott's Thelma & Louise (released the same year), it confronted the devil's bargain at the heart of increased women's rights: how to share power with the monsters that power creates.

And so we have Hannibal, which really has no reason for existing except that a lot of people want to eat more of the same, but different. Lacking a story beyond "Clarice and Hannibal return," Harris and screenwriters David Mamet and Steven Zaillian don't attempt subtlety: They reintroduce the old characters--with unapologetically derivative scenes of character development--and drive them to more extreme acts. Soon after the film's start, Starling is in trouble at the FBI, because a rebellious male subordinate forced her into a bloody shootout with drug dealers. (Score: Starling kills five.) With a push from a dastardly Justice Department flack (Ray Liotta), she's demoted to working in a basement office, where she tediously listens to tapes of Hannibal Lecter. Liotta's character next tries to seduce her by citing his love for, yes, "corn-pone country pussy." So much for a discussion of class.

Meanwhile, Lecter is in Italy, applying to be head librarian of a medieval collection. The detective investigating the disappearance--wink wink--of the previous librarian goes by the name of Pazzi, pronounced "patsy" (I told you they weren't subtle). After a snoozy windup, he and Lecter begin chasing each other (gulping wine as they go), with Pazzi hoping to reap a huge reward. That he deserves what he gets is the not-unspoken message. Unfortunately, Giancarlo Giannini's haunted eyes steal every scene, and his fate is most distressing. Appropriately so, I guess: In this game, he is the greedy viewer, led to a punning end.

Back in the States lurks Lecter's only surviving victim, a wealthy nonpracticing pedophile (Gary Oldman, who perks up a few sad lines despite 40 layers of fake scar tissue). This man's dearest wish is to consume the Great Consumer, and to that end he has Krendler, Pazzi, and some Italian boar farmers in his pocket (plausibility not being a concern). Downing liquids all the while, he sets up poor puppet Starling to coax out Lecter, at which point it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between villain and victim. There's some humor here, as monster meets monster. But the denouement to this particular arc is graphic to the point of snottiness. Is that what you wanted to see? jibe the filmmakers, trying to awaken remorse--even as they gradually ratchet up the giddy gruesomeness, preparing you for worse horrors. Which come soon enough.

Perhaps the most horrible atrocity here is modest FBI agent Clarice Starling lolling in hootchy heels and a plunging gown (and not looking particularly odd--after all, Julianne isn't Jodie). But I'll shut up now, for, as Lecter warns, describing the main course spoils the surprise. And teasing the consumer appetite is what reviews--of movies, CDs, books, restaurants, vacuum cleaners, etc.--are all about, right? I mustn't tell you that you can live quite happily without this product. I mustn't point out that if we constant consumers paused for a second, we might realize that our hunger won't be satisfied by a movie, let alone a second-rate sequel.

Suffice it to say that, in the world according to Hannibal, everything is for sale; everything is consumable. (The filmmakers may want to quibble about Starling--she only drinks water!--but any cop who mows down five black drug dealers while hesitating to kill a mass murderer can't claim even a tarnished integrity. Plus, Moore is absolutely delectable in that black dress of theirs.) The hero according to Hannibal is the consumer with educated taste: the cruel yet thoughtful gourmand. That would be Lecter. And the villain? Hard to distinguish from the victim, or the viewer. That snake, maybe, chewing on its tail.

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