A scene from 'Don't Say a Word'
Courtesy Photo
** stars 120 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, September 28, 2001
Directed by Gary Fleder

Starring Michael Douglas, Brittany Murphy, Famke Janssen, Sean Bean, Oliver Platt, Jennifer Esposito, Guy Torry, Skye McCole Bartusiak


The movie's rather cheap jumps and starts will be pretty low-impact without the surround-sound score thundering around you to punch them up.

   VIDEO RELEASE: 02.19.2002


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Psych patient holds the key to saving Douglas's kidnapped daughter in contrived thriller

By Rob Blackwelder

A standard-issue kiddie-kidnapping adrenaline thriller, "Don't Say a Word" has a single reason for being -- one fertile, previously untapped plot hook that goes completely to waste in the hands of director Gary Fleder.

The hook: The kidnappers want a nugget of information locked away in the head of a delusional teenage mental patient (Brittany Murphy), and they snatch an Upper West Side psychologist's 8-year-old daughter to force him to help.

But the movie (based on a book by Andrew Klavan) pays little more than lip service to the logistics of such a demand. Even though no doctor has been able to get through to her in 10 years, this shrink (Michael Douglas) garners the crazy girl's trust in a matter of hours -- thus negating the only fresh element in the entire script.

Even less common sense is applied to the logistics of the kidnapper's plan, which includes the preposterously improbable and conveniently unexplained planting of high-tech surveillance and phone tapping equipment in both a locked-down psychiatric ward and the bedroom of our hero and his wife -- apparently while they slept through the kidnapping. (Douglas isn't even the teenager's shrink until he's brought onto her case the day before, so they couldn't have known to do it until that night.)

The baddies are lead by uber-antagonist Sean Bean (evil 006 in "GoldenEye," the vengeful IRA terrorist in "Patriot Games"), playing a jewelry heister who killed Murphy's daddy when she was a little girl, after being double-crossed over a rare red diamond. Murphy knows where the stone is hidden and now that Bean has served his time for her father's murder, he wants his loot.

"Don't Say A Word" makes all this more complicated than necessary by slowly disseminating this information while going on and on about how Murphy "has a six-digit number in her head." This way Fleder ("Kiss the Girls") can reveal what that number means in the last reel as if it's some kind of surprise.

Meanwhile, the picture flies off on a seemingly unrelated tangent from time to time, following Jennifer Esposito ("Summer of Sam") as a homicide detective investigating a floater found in the Hudson River. Fleder eventually folds this subplot into the primary story for the soul purpose of having Esposito turn up just in the nick of time to shoot a bad guy during the climax.

"Don't Say a Word" has its strong points, not the least of which is Brittany Murphy. After a career in supporting roles -- many of them other loony bin denizens as in "Freeway" and "Girl, Interrupted" -- she may finally get noticed for her complex performance here, playing a girl traumatized by seeing her father killed but intelligent enough to fool her doctors for a decade with counterfeit psychoses. Just why she's done this is absurd -- the movie implies she's intentionally staying locked up to keep Bean from getting to her, even though he's been in the slammer the whole time. But Murphy makes you believe it with her hollow, haunting eyes and her disquieting physical and mental tics.

The film also comes through in the apprehensive atmosphere department. It would be thick with tension if it weren't already thick with popcorn movie bullpuckey. How and when was the surveillance set up? Why is there a 5 p.m. deadline for Douglas to deliver the six-digit number, other than because it says so in the script? Why are two main characters -- Douglas' wife (Famke Janssen) and Murphy's regular shrink (Oliver Platt) -- so extraneous to the plot that there's no need to mention them in this review? I have a couple dozen other obvious questions, but I won't bore you with a list.

Fleder attempts, as he did with "Kiss the Girls," to puff this picture up with quasi-intellectual hot air. But the truth is, "Don't Say a Word" is the kind of movie Hollywood makes on auto-pilot (see "Ransom," "Along Came a Spider"), counting on the audience to blindly accept the gimmicks, contrivances, coincidences and suspension-of-disbelief leaps of faith required in every other scene to keep it from collapsing under the weight of its own incongruity.


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