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Review: 'Lake Placid' not very biting

July 20, 1999
Web posted at: 11:37 a.m. EDT (1537 GMT)

By Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Writer-producer David E. Kelley must have been the kind of kid who would trade his Hank Aaron baseball card for a Bob Uecker.

That would explain his thinking that people should fork over good money to see "Lake Placid," a dull, stupid "Jaws" re-hash that replaces the shark with a crocodile, Roy Scheider with Bill Pullman, and Richard Dreyfuss with Bridget Fonda. Steve Miner directs in place of Steven Spielberg, just so none of the actors feels outclassed.

Kelley is the miniskirt-ogling "feminist" behind "Ally McBeal," so he's built up a lot of TV caché in recent years. You have to wonder, though, when he actually had time to write this thing. It seems like thinking up cartoony, bug-eyed bits of business for Calista Flockhart would take up most of his time.

"Lake Placid" is one of those things that's supposed to be positively hilarious because it takes a well-known, beautifully made film and boils it down to a ludicrous series of tacky gestures. In theory, its very badness is to be applauded, even though the original film is sitting right there on the shelf at the video store, waiting to be properly enjoyed yet again. The audience is expected to sit through something that's purposefully second-rate because the filmmakers don't want to risk trying too hard.

Watch the theatrical trailer for "Lake Placid"
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The real problem here is that this isn't John Sayles and Joe Dante doing "Piranha" (1978) on a budget of a few thousand dollars and some trading stamps. This is a known bunch of people with millions of dollars at their disposal slumming for yet another pile of bucks.

Miner's thoroughly unimaginative visual style sees to it that "Lake Placid" is not the least bit frightening, and the entire undertaking generates maybe one decent laugh. That is, if you don't count Fonda's chronic inability to act.

Half-dragged, wholly derivative

The opening sequence -- here's a surprise -- lifts directly from the opening of "Jaws." A scuba-diving scientist is suddenly flung into a grisly aquatic ballet in a backwoods Maine lake, then gets half-dragged out of the water by the local sheriff. By "half-dragged," I mean that only half of him makes it onto the boat, the other half winding up in the tummy of whatever it was that attacked him.

Brendan Gleeson, who was so good last year in John Boorman's "The General," plays the sheriff, and he deserves much, much better than this. Everyone on Earth does.

Then we cut to New York City, where a paleontologist named Kelly Scott (Fonda) is selected by her ex-boyfriend and boss (Adam Arkin) to investigate a large tooth found at the site of the slaughter. Kelly's ex picks her mostly to get her out of the way, which, given the character's penchant for self-obsessed whining, is perfectly understandable. After a while you start praying for her to get masticated, not a good thing when she's the main character of the movie.

Upon arrival, Kelly -- who "amusingly" complains about roughing it in the wilderness every time she opens her mouth -- is teamed up with Gleeson's put-upon sheriff, a local cop (Pullman, squinting for dollars), and a sexy deputy (Meredith Salenger).

As is always the case in Kelley's supposedly brave work, women are given jobs that are normally -- and improperly -- associated with men. But, just to be safe, they're a D-cup away from being complete bombshells, and at least one male co-worker ogles them at every turn.

That job falls to Oliver Platt, as Hector Cyr, a vigorously eccentric millionaire who likes to get into the water and swim with crocodiles because he thinks they're godlike entities. Hector, who wasn't invited, just falls out of the sky at one point, driving a helicopter full of sophisticated croc-detecting devices. Even though they hate him, the rest of the crew members let him stick around because of all his fancy gizmos.

Virtually every line of Kelley's comic dialogue is sarcasm-based, the majority of the zingers coming from Hector. They seldom move beyond eighth-grade witticisms about how stupid everyone is; so many needling one-liners appear D.O.A., you'd think you were watching an episode of "Mama's Family."

Betty White, of all people, is also on hand as a potty-mouthed old lady who, it turns out, has been feeding barnyard animals to the crocodile for the past six years. Why nobody ever detected the croc before now is never explained. Why the croc never jumps out of the water and eats Betty White (as it eats a grizzly bear at one point) is never explained.

Hell, even perfectly sensible questions that actually get asked -- such as, how in the world did an Asian crocodile end up in a lake in the middle of Maine? -- never get explained. The crocodile itself looks pretty cool in a computer-generated sort of way, but everything you see in a movie these days looks pretty cool in a computer-generated sort of way. Ultimately, it's not much more impressive than that damned dancing baby everyone was so concerned with last summer.

If you think about it, Kelley got it exactly right: The movie's a complete crock.

"Lake Placid" is silly violent. The guy who gets bitten in half is pretty nasty to look at, but even a deputy who suddenly has his head chomped off doesn't make you flinch. (It's nice, by the way, to see the very appealing Salenger again. All grown up now, she was the young girl in the enjoyable 1985 kids' movie, "The Journey of Natty Gann.") Rated R. 82 minutes, and even that's not merciful enough.

Betty White goes 'potty mouth' in 'Lake Placid'
July 13, 1999

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