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Sea Changes: George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg try to keep their heads about water in Wolfgang Petersen's 'The Perfect Storm.'

Water Whirl

Clooney battles the elements and the script in 'The Perfect Storm'

By Richard von Busack

There's a soap-opera tinge to the title The Perfect Storm, and the connection is redoubled in the amateurish way the title is pronounced by a weatherman staring into his computer monitor. We see the locals gather in the waterfront bar, praying for word of the endangered mariners; we see the croaking old rummy who knows in his bones that the sailors are in deep trouble an hour before anyone else. In the fishing boat Andrea Gail is a meter reading "bilge monitor," visible during an interchange about hearth and home between George Clooney's and Mark Walhberg's characters. Some of their dialogue should have sent that monitor flashing.

Despite itself, The Perfect Storm has a taut, exciting tale to tell, all about a little boat in the middle of an inconceivably huge and furious patch of weather: the Halloween 1991 Force 12 storm off the coast of New England, described in Sebastian Junger's book. Director Wolfgang Petersen, who made Das Boot, is an excellent mechanic. It helps also that Clooney plays the Andrea Gail's captain, Billy Tyne. Among the packs of male leads in the movies--the studly punks, the zany misogynists, the Telemachus-complex suffers, the vain old roosters and the slick bastards--Clooney is one of the very few with real authority. Still, Bill Wittliff's script leaves little to the imagination. Tyne looks at a photo of his ex-kids and says, "I'm not good at doing things the way they're supposed to be done." That's well enough, but a following line explains what he means--staying married, raising his children--after we've already guessed what he meant.

The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. Wahlberg, as always, is risible when he tries to get in deep. John C. Reilly and William Fichtner play sailors locked in a lethal feud, but their business boils over too early. We get glimpses of Cherry Jones and Karen Allen in a subplot about a Coast Guard rescue of a pleasure boat. This subplot is smashing stuff, with scenes of an aerial refueling of a helicopter in the middle of a howling storm. Petersen means for these rescue scenes to fight the claustrophobia that comes from a drama set aboard a boat. Still, the true adventure seems to be onboard the Andrea Gail, and cutting away from the fishing boat is more irritating than suspenseful.

Industrial Light and Magic's animation has never looked more convincing. The storms are almost abstract in their power, depicting the slow force of moving water and the troughs yawning beneath the waves. The storm is more like science-fiction than seafaring, which is exactly the point about how bad weather can get. If the harbor scenes had matched these storms with emotional power, The Perfect Storm would have been an adventure classic instead of a remarkable technical feat.

The Perfect Storm (PG; ), directed by Wolfgang Petersen, written by Bill Wittliff, based on the book by Sebastian Junger, photographed by John Seale and starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Karen Allen, opens Friday at selected theaters countywide.

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From the June 28-July 5, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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