Wag the Shaggy Dog

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"CREATIVE OBFUSCATION" is probably the best way to describe the game of a storyteller. It's a game of hints and revelations, doled out like sips of whiskey or promises of candy. Expecting a great payoff, we appreciate the tension of waiting for it--that tension coming from the storyteller's talent for making delays into diversions.

Then again, sometimes the storyteller is just spinning wheels because there's no whiskey or candy left and he's a little too fond of the sound of his own voice. This problem pops up with the coincidental but revealing double feature Barry Levinson has just given us: Wag the Dog and Sphere. These two movies, made in quick succession, have little in common beyond a director and a star (Dustin Hoffman), yet they provide a great object lesson in how to tell a story: On the one hand, a story about obfuscation (Wag the Dog) shows the seams (and seaminess) in high-level political lying, all the while whipping through an irony-packed plot that has enough diverting delays of its own; on the other, a wannabe sci-fi mystery-thriller about making dreams come true (Sphere) sinks to the murky ocean floor.

Apparently Levinson was frustrated at the progress of Sphere--which required some re-shoots and was originally planned as a 1997 release--and cooked up Wag as a kind of palate cleanser. Whatever its origins, it's clear the political satire has a sharper eye on authority, human weakness, and the lust for power than its lugubrious sibling. It's also clear that Levinson is not the kind of guy to take on science fiction, or any kind of speculation about anything other than overt crassness. As is clear in his Tin Men, Diner, and Rain Man, Levinson has a gift for sharp repartee and small-group squabbling, but he's not the sort of guy to think big and metaphysical.

Since Sphere is in part about competitive and emotionally bruised academics called in to investigate a mysterious spaceship, there's some justification for having Levinson as the storyteller. He introduces the psychologist Norman (Hoffman), an expert in stress syndrome among rescue groups, as the surprised leader of a multitalented crew assembled to greet whatever's waiting on a futuristic spaceship that apparently landed on the ocean floor 300 years ago. The group includes a marine biologist (Sharon Stone), an astrophysicist (Liev Schreiber), and a mathematician who can outguess probability itself (Samuel L. Jackson). After a claustrophobic descent and career-based sniping at one another, these people throw the scientific method overboard when they encounter the Sphere.

The Sphere is a 30-foot-high rippling golden ball. It's a big-screen TV, a magic mirror, a fountain of youth, and some digital programmer's dream entry on a résumé of ersatz accomplishments. Lurking in the sunken spaceship, the Sphere is never quite explained. Those who visit it see themselves travel its circumference, and then they disappear. The Sphere turns the mathematician into a nightmare generator (and, conveniently, a spooky black guy). He's afraid of squid, so the underwater habitat is attacked by a really big squid. He enjoys 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, so suddenly the kitchen cupboards overflow with multiple copies of it.

Lacking a grown-up cast, this is the kind of story made to frighten teenagers 15 years ago. It's little more than a spookhouse romp, in large part because neither the characters nor their deeper desires are explained enough to make their nightmares scarier than squishy stuff popping up at unwanted intervals. Why do the scientists abandon reason and methodical inquiry to snoop at the Sphere alone? What nags at them from their pasts? Where are the Socratic dialogues of Michael Crichton's novel? Why are so many conversations filled with obfuscation?

Here's "creative": the gonzo characters, edgy edits, dizzy camera placements, and wacky closeups of Anne Heche that distinguish Wag the Dog. And here's "obfuscation": the pushy closeups, overbearing trombones, and unanswered questions of Sphere. Since Wag shows us how easy it is to tell a lie, Levinson should have spared us the big, boring, watery fib that is Sphere.

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