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[whitespace] William H. Macy Stink of Excuse: All of William H. Macy's characters give off the scent of shame and compromise.

Killer's Kiss

William H. Macy stars in 'Panic,' a middle-age angst movie with a twist

By Richard von Busack

THE FILM Panic gives you a new look at William H. Macy. The poet e.e. cummings described a "stink of excuse" emanating from an unsuccessful salesman. Macy played just such a stinking salesman in his best-known film, Fargo; the scent of shame and compromises has clung to the various Macy characters since.

But Panic shows you there's no reason why Macy shouldn't be called good-looking. Really, his features are just too close together and the wrong size, a matter of arrangement. In Panic, there's something tense and strong in Macy we haven't seen before, as when a woman calls him "middle-aged," and he snaps back, "I'm not middle-aged." Neve Campbell, unusually good as an unmoored girl, calls him "beautiful." The word isn't out of place. What do you know? She's right, he is beautiful.

Much of the film takes place against Atom Egoyan-style wide-screen backgrounds in and around the uninviting plaza of a skyscraper--an oversized fountain area walled in by glass buildings. When a man drops dead in this vast plaza, no one notices.

It's the courtyard of the building where Macy, as a depressed character named Alex, goes for psychiatric appointments. (As Alex pays off a $125 session, the shrink, played by John Ritter, asks his patient how he's feeling now. "Poorer," Alex replies.) One factor especially keeps Alex coming back for more: a young female patient he keeps running into in the waiting room.

Neve Campbell's Sarah is an untidy girl who favors kimonos and jackets with dog-fur collars. To her, sex is the easiest thing in the world, but nothing else is--especially all the things in the world that are so much easier than sex. She's not a pushover; she's not about to surrender herself to a man with more troubles than she has. Still, Sarah's presence gives this very married Alex hope of an escape from his life and the choices he's made.

The one important choice that Alex didn't make was his line of work, a job his father pushed him into. Alex is a murderer for hire. Panic is far superior to American Beauty in its study of a midlife crisis. Alex's estrangement from his family and himself is due to his secret life as a killer, but it's a metaphorical occupation, really; it could have been the memory of incest, or drugs, or anomie that kept him from savoring his life.

The twist of Alex's killer job adds more general interest to the story without cheating or cheapening the subject. The acting is superior throughout. Donald Sutherland, who can be one of the most hacked-out of hard-working actors, is alive and awake as the old man; he's especially good in a nasty little speech about how women are vipers. As Alex's neglected wife, Tracey Ullman, one of the most unsung of great actors, is, like Macy, plain but beautiful.

First-time director/writer Henry Bromell plays down the melodrama, though I admire Panic's cool tenderness: such as the odd but inspired passage where Macy dons a devil mask to tease a birthday party of elementary school kids. In another smart scene, Alex finds a pair of handcuffs at Sarah's apartment and asks her what they're for, and she says, "You don't know me well enough to ask that question." Bromell is wise enough to leave some questions hanging; the intelligence of this movie is seen in how much is left between the lines.

Panic (R; 90 min.), directed and written by Henry Bromell, photographed by Jeff Jur and starring William H. Macy and Neve Campbell, opens Friday at the Camera One in San Jose.

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From the November 30-December 6, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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