Film Review (UK), February 1998

Speak of the Devil

In The Devil's Advocate, Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron fall under the diabolic spell of Al Pacino. Marianne Gray sells her soul for an interview with the star trio.

Taylor Hackford's new film The Devil's Advocate is the complex tale of a modern pact with the devil through greed, ego, jealousy, lust, competitiveness and dishonesty. It's Faust in sharp suits, a sort of entertaining morality play with shades of Rosemary's Baby, Wall Street, Bonfire of the Vanities and countless other tales of selling out to Manhattan's temptations.

This time the devil is John Milton, played by Al Pacino, who is head honcho at a law firm. This Milton knows a thing or two about paradise lost. As he likes to point out, "Vanity is definitely my favourite sin."

His advocate is Kevin Lomax, played by Keanu Reeves, an ambitious, young and debonair Florida lawyer who thinks he has much to gain by being lured by Milton to his practice at a devilishly understated penthouse office in Manhattan.

With Lomax comes his gorgeous and sultry wife Mary Ann, played by 2 Days in the Valley's Charlize Theron. They are given a big apartment and she stays at home the way Rosemary did, painting the place and shopping with other corporate wives while her husband advances his career and becomes increasingly seduced by the cases that come his way.

Not entirely unexpectedly, Mrs Lomax, a bubbly, successful young woman from the South, starts having trouble - emotional, psychological and physical - as a corporate wife in the Big Apple, "the dwelling place of demons".

At the start of their marriage she seems almost like a female version of her husband. Now, in what to her is merely well-heeled isolation, she bitterly misses her husband and feels hugely inadequate. On top of that, she also finds she has to withstand the demonic power of her husband's boss. But her husband fails to pick up on this until it's too late.

"Kevin is ambitious," says Reeves, 32, of his role. "He is high on his own career trajectory and wants to feel that nobody can beat him. He even says at the height of his wife's trauma, 'I'll win this case and then I'll focus all my energy onto her.' He's made a Faustian pact with getting his ambition.

"In real life I see all this pact with the devil stuff as a metaphor for all things. It confronts everyone - directors, lawyers, even journalists. I've never truly, really been faced with a real Faustian pact but definitely there are correlations to Hollywood where you are constantly dicing with the devil. I've had many sort of semi-Faustian pacts in life - you lose or you win. At the end of the day you have to live your life with your decisions. It's best not to sell your soul, don't you think?

"People keep asking me what effect this film has had on my personal life." Reeves chuckles, bobbing his head around almost like a seal. "It has brought about more reflection and thought, but there are no five-point stars in my home and I haven't joined any cults yet!"

No longer so 'young, dumb and full of cum' as his character is described in Point Break, he's still a cross-generational heart-throb but he's no longer the peachy boy on the young Brando rebel trip anymore. He might seem a bit scatty when you see him in an interview situation, but really he's all there. He's made more than two dozen films and is no slouch when it comes to Shakespeare (remember Ken Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing?)

"This is not a plot-driven Hollywood movie," says Reeves. "It's a follow-your-character driven film. I was attracted to it because it was artistic and the script writing was different - it was storytelling. I did not do it because it was mainstream. Okay, I have done many films that want to be mainstream! I did this one because they wanted me.

"I was also very tantalized about working with Mr Pacino. When I first met him I was deferential, nervous, excited. He was my hero. As a kid I watched the Godfather pictures, Scarface, Serpico until they came out of my ears. I grew up with his films. I knew by working with him I could only raise my game, so to speak. We work in totally different ways but our relationship was, for me anyway, fantastic. I had some of the best times of my life with him.

"I think most of us younger actors, in general, worship Pacino. He is generous, classy, totally adult, open and fearless. It was wonderful working with him. It was wonderful, too, working with Charlize [Theron]. I hadn't seen any of her films before. She certainly performs with grace and truthfulness. I found working with her also very inspiring."

For Pacino, working with young actors has been a trend. His recent relatively youthful co-stars include Chris O'Donnell in Scent of a Woman, John Cusack in City Hall and Johnny Depp in Donnie Brasco. Director Taylor Hackford describes him as having perfected the art of getting younger people to act. Pacino himself is modest on this score.

"The young actors are actually the easiest to associate with because they seem to be so much more open and ready to do anything. And they are fun to be with. I learn plenty from them because I think - I hope - that as I get older I realize more and more that you seem to know less and less. I enjoy getting a sense of what's going out there from them. Keanu sure has humour. Humour is essential making films when you have to sit around for long periods of time doing nothing or talking small talk. All that sort of stuff can be draining. I don't particularly enjoy small talk and sometimes it is the humour that keeps you going.

"This film, after all, was 'the kids' film'. It's Kevin and Mary Ann Lomax's journey. I just have moments. John Milton never forces Kevin Lomax or anybody to do anything. He just advises Lomax, never tells him what to do. He allows him to use his own personal moral codes and free will. As John Milton notes, nobody on earth could do his bidding better than a well-trained band of attorneys, of which he himself is head. If those attorneys are as pampered as Kevin Lomax threatens to become, so much the better.

"But remember the devil, John Milton, is smart and charming and funny. He delights in people's fall from grace. He's fallen from grace enough times himself. But then from where he's sitting he is Master of the Universe."

Pacino talks slowly, guarded with the occasional smile, but you can see it's all serious work through and through. He has won an Oscar (for Scent of a Woman) and been nominated for one seven times over the course of only a few more than two dozen films. The Devil's Advocate is a film he has been interested in for about five years.

"First time around I turned this film down because it was more of a special effects movie with a monster in it and satirical overtones," says Pacino. "The script has been around about five years and it really didn't have an idea in its head.

"Like so many things times change and with new ideas and reworking it gradually became more relevant to today's world. When they came to me the second time they said they'd work to make the John Milton role more one of a devil that could exist in the late Nineties, more Faustian more humour more about temptation. Manipulation is the devil's interpretation of it all.

"Nowadays the word 'devil' is not so much used like it used to be. For 'devil' read 'evil' although as a Catholic, for me there is a sort of symbolic devil. I don't think of the devil as Satan as such - 'satan' in Latin, I understand, means 'adversary'.

For Charlize Theron, 22, The Devil's Advocate came as a godsend, the first in a run of very Alist films.

She's currently being punted as the new beauty-on-the-block, the new Marilyn Monroe, but South African-born Theron, with her candid blue-eyed beauty, is already in a league of her own with three more films in the can: Mighty Joe Young with Bill Paxton, Woody Allen's next film, and The Astronaut's Wife co-starring Johnny Depp.

"I'd always been a fan of the films of Taylor Hackford, especially An Officer and a Gentleman. At first they offered me a lesser part, that of Christabella, but I held out for the lead and, in a way, Taylor provided me with the feather for my wings to fly.

"The Devil's Advocate story struck me as being just like real life, what we face every day. Temptation. The demon of evil. I don't believe in the devil as such but I believe in evil. My role, Mary Ann, is a wife who has stopped taking care of herself because her husband has been swept in this Faustian pact with the Pacino character. She doesn't know him any more and she is quietly going crazy. I went to the auditions looking like shit, bags under my eyes, greasy hair because Mary Ann is not a 'beauty' role.

"Working with Al was a dream. I saw the Godfather films when I was a child and was completely blown away by him. He is so beautiful to watch. It's like a drug almost, you can't take your eyes off him or get enough of him. It's what every actor strives for, that power. His power is incredible.

"I'd never met Keanu prior to the audition. I loved him as Buddha in Little Buddha and in My Own Private Idaho. I even loved A Walk in the Clouds. He works very similar to the way I work. Whenever we were in rehearsal we would experiment with things. Improvization, talking about the script, creating backstories for the characters. He was very game for stuff like that."

The script calls for a passionate and unusual (for reasons that will become clear when you see it) sexual encounter with Reeves.

"This film was only the second love scene that I've done [the first was in the Tarantino-esque black comedy 2 Days in the Valley] and Keanu was so sweet about it. We did the film's big, long love scene over a period of a month and boy, was it hard. But he has such a great sense of humour he made it easy for me. There's a funny thing that happens when you do a love scene. It's not at all romantic. It's all choreographed and cut and edited and there's a heap of guys standing round you. These scenes always demand such a great sense of humour. You can't be uptight about that sort of thing.

"Keanu was wonderful. He's so light-hearted, so casual. At one point he was standing there completely naked and joked: 'This is what I do for a living. I'm just gonna call my Mum right now and tell her how my day went'. He's completely comfortable with himself but I think he kinda puts himself in the woman's shoes as well. You can get so nervous when you're working with someone who gets freaked out by that stuff. It's not as though you know each other you're just working together."




Article Focus:

Devil's Advocate, The

Tagged:

Devil's Advocate, The , Point Break , Much Ado About Nothing , Little Buddha , My Own Private Idaho , A Walk in the Clouds




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