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Juiceless '2 Days' of Pulp

Elliott Marks

Blue Plate Saturday-night Special: Crook-on-the-run Danny Aiello forces hostage Glenne Headly to serve him dinner in John Herzfeld's Tarantino-esgue"2 Days in the Valley."

'2 Days in the Valley' is more violins than violence

By Richard von Busack

THE NEW independent film 2 Days in the Valley should appeal mainly to people who wished Pulp Fiction had included more reaction shots of quizzical dogs. Director/writer John Herzfeld's fractured narrative--a group of assorted San Fernando Valley characters are linked by a killing and a car bombing--flies from point to point, but the modish structure and painfully hip ensemble casting can't make up for an essential lack of center.

Herzfeld tries to disguise the film's hollow core with a thick layer of sheer mawkishness. And so, a shooting is balanced with scenes in which the violins are turned up. Paul Mazursky (director of Enemies, A Love Story and Down and Out in Beverly Hills), for instance, plays a has-been director who can't get his agent to call back and is ready to commit suicide. We also have Marsha Mason murmuring endearments to a Spanish American War­era tombstone that's supposed to mark the grave of a Vietnam vet. And there's Jeff Daniels weeping at a crayon picture by his lost-to-divorce kid showing his "second daddy." Choke!

The movie's slickness, however, easily outstrips its tenderness. The real fun comes when 2 Days in the Valley channels the look of B-movie spies of the '60s. James Spader is aboard, wearing Michael Caine's thick-rimmed glasses from The Ipcress File and wielding a menacing stopwatch as if he were auditioning for the role of the villain Clock King in the next-after-this-one Batman movie. His Norwegian girlfriend (Charlize Theron) wears a white jumpsuit that could have been peeled off of Catherine Spaak, Senta Berger or Dahlia Lavi--where are they all now, the big-haired, heavily accented Euro-fatales of yesteryear?

Eventually, the movie's tangle is resolved with the help of a sort of over-the-hill gang of Mazursky's director and Spader's estranged partner in crime (Danny Aiello). Riding off into the sunset, Aiello's character says he's heading to Brooklyn to open a pizzeria. As an example of afterthought writing, this is neither noteworthy nor a setup for the obvious cheap joke on Aiello's part in Do the Right Thing ("Forget it, they'll just throw another garbage can through the front window"). What the ending demonstrates is that things have gotten so bad in L.A. that people are even willing to relocate to Brooklyn.

THE FILM does deliver one good line: "In my experience, a loser has more honor than a winner." That sentiment sums up alternative film. As bathetic as the whole suicide motif is, this line directly counters the mainstream Hollywood credo, most recently voiced by Sean Connery's character in The Rock: Losers whine, but winners gets to fuck the homecoming queen.

The near-suicide occurs early in the picture after the washed-up director is confronted by a small-time actor (Austin Pendleton) who derides him for his flops and bombs. The scene carries weight because of Mazursky's own poor performance at the box-office lately, most especially in the disastrous The Pickle, a barely released satire that also starred Aiello. Mazursky's character is stayed from suicide, however, by a fan (Mason) who tells him that she was the only person in the theater laughing at his last film.

At least Herzfeld understands the difference between beautiful losers and ugly winners. The scene with Mason and Mazursky also captures the deepest hope of a fan of alternative film: that you might be in the right place at the right time to return some of the pleasure of movie-going to a moviemaker--not to an overly buttered-up success but to a director whose great films didn't make the proverbial dime.

Despite such flashes of depth, 2 Days in the Valley doesn't have anything to say for itself besides the obvious "There's no business but show business." The film's been shaped and smoothed for success, with excess sentiment, lots of blood and the close-ups of the dogs (Mazursky carries around a Yorkshire terrier named Bogie--yet another reference to the long-lost days when movies supposedly had integrity). 2 Days in the Valley is a nice try, but it's also a failure, a classic example of a movie that tries to be something for everyone and will probably end up pleasing no one.

Two Days in the Valley (R; 105 min.), directed and written by John Herzfeld, photographed by Oliver Wood and starring James Spader, Danny Aiello and Marsha Mason.

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From the September 26-October 2, 1996 issue of Metro

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