126 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, June 4, 1999
Directed by Jon Turteltaub
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Cuba Gooding Jr, Donald Sutherland & Maura Tierney
SMALL SCREEN SHRINKAGE: 10%|
LETTERBOX: NOT NECESSARY
Essentially a TV-movie quality flick blessed by major talents, "Instinct" might not seem like quite such a stinker on the small screen. But if it's Hopkins head games you're looking for, why not go staight for "Silence of the Lambs"? If serious Cuba is the draw, check out "Daybreak," a little known dark-future drama he did in 1993.
VIDEO RELEASE: 11/16/99
Ostensibly intelligent 'Instinct' ironically follows formula in story about going ape
Essentially a formulaic John Grisham drama with shrinks instead of lawyers, "Instinct" is the kind of ostensibly cerebral project that attracts big talent with challenging central characters, but ultimately never rises to the level of its stars because everything else is pure paint- by- numbers.
It stars Anthony Hopkins as another caged and dangerous genius (call him Hannibal of the Apes), an asylumed primatologist accused of murdering a pair of poachers in Rwanda two years after abandoning human existence to live among a clan of African mountain gorillas.
Cuba Gooding, Jr. play a cocksure, ambitious University of Massachusetts psychology resident (with fatherly Donald Sutherland for a mentor) who is in over his head trying to treat Hopkins, but who sees this misunderstood maniac as an opportunity to rocket himself into a prestigious career.
Most of the film takes place in prison therapy sessions, during which Gooding tries to draw out the man buried under Hopkins' animal instincts.
The first sign that this movie is going to be a let-down comes with the fact that this task is disappointingly easy. For a couple meetings, Hopkins just sits there looking feral with his unmanageable gray mane of split ends and his wild eyes, saying nothing (although he does attack Gooding a couple of times just to make the audience jump).
But very quickly and without much encouragement he becomes coherent and loquacious, narrating a lengthy but somehow still rushed series of flashbacks that recount -- in an avalanche of cheap symbolism and ironically inorganic atmosphere -- his going gorilla and the events leading up to the (obviously justified) killings.
Naturally, Gooding is pretty proud of himself at this point and thinks he's in control, but once his patient starts speaking, their relationship becomes a psychological battle, and -- as we know from "Silence of the Lambs" -- when you're playing mind games with an Anthony Hopkins character, you're gonna lose.
Directed by Jon Turteltaub ("Phenomenon") and suggested by a Daniel Quinn novel called "Ishmael" ("suggested by" usually means the movie takes wild liberties with the book), "Instinct" is an engrossing idea that succumbed to the fallacies of Screenwriting 101. You can see the intelligent story struggling to get out, but its been restrained and sedated by the rigidity of the prefabricated script, which ironically disparages structure and control.
In such scripts, there must be messages put forth (freedom, nature good; prison system, modern man bad), lessons learned (helping people is more noble than blind ambition), moments of triumph (asylum prisoners learn to assert themselves as the soundtrack swells) and moments of tearful revelation ("You taught me how to live!" cries Cuba).
But in trying to shoehorn in all this generic pap, Turteltaub misses the boat on what should be driving his movie -- the personalities. The overrated Cuba Gooding, Jr. ads little uniqueness to his character and brings no depth to his emergence from his world of blind ambition. Hopkins, while well cast, gives a vague performance that is more esoteric than it is intelligently abstract. He never gives his character a sense feeling lost in civilization after being dragged from his natural home in the jungle.
Even though it's peppered with logical loopholes and other inconsistencies (Maura Tierney, as Hopkins' daughter, is a bitter, pent-up chain smoker who turns practically cuddly in later scenes), had "Instinct" shaken off its Grisham-esque recipe, it might have been the movie these actors probably thought it would be when they signed on, several re-writes ago.
But the way it turned out, it's merely proof that two Academy Award winners do not a good movie make.