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[whitespace] Owen Wilson Going Postal

The lost art of serial murder

By Richard von Busack

Seen that t-shirt with the picture of Charles Manson in full, gleaming-eyed craziness above the caption "Think Different" and the Apple Computer logo? Manson is an exception. Taken as a class, serial killers have to be some of the most uninteresting people on the planet. For every Charlie, there are dozens of ordinary, low-watt-IQ souls prowling the interstate, committing sordid killings.

Usually, they're apprehended during the commission of some completely uninteresting crime, like shoplifting or gasoline theft. They cannot walk through doors and walls, like their alter-egos in the movie versions. They aren't diabolical enough to avoid capture, and their crimes usually come not from a rogue gene or the aid of Satan but from a lifetime of abuse worsened by public apathy to their pain.

And then they go to jail and become born-again Christians. Zzzzzzz.

No one remembers Juan Corona, still the mass-murder champ in California. It's because his crimes were cheapskate murders; he killed more than 20 farm workers to avoid paying them. Imagine killing someone for a farm-worker's wages. You see? Sordid.

The transgressive qualities of The Minus Man are milked in its teaser ad. We see a man and a woman discussing this strange film they've seen. To her horror, the woman realizes that she's forgotten to go to her work as a pool lifeguard. And when she gets there, an old person has drowned because of her lack of attention. The clever ad is a bait and switch, because The Minus Man gives one so little to talk about. Its attitudes are right on the surface.

This directorial debut by the screenwriter Hampton Fancher (Blade Runner, The Mighty Quinn) takes an opposite approach to the usual superkiller profile. It suggests that occasionally a serial killer can be a sweet-tempered bore.

Owen Wilson plays Vann Siegert, a pleasant but dim drifter who idles his way into a job as a postman. When he feels like it, Vann poisons people with doses from a silver flask that he mixes with Amaretto. (Vann doesn't drink, himself.) The victims keel over with almost cartoonish ease; no sickness troubles their last minutes on Earth. This fairy-tale method of striking people dead was probably engineered to cover Wilson's minus qualities as an actor. His Vann is a nice guy, really, but he doesn't have the charisma to make you like him even if he hurts people.

Fancher tries to make a beautiful small town look oppressive. He dwells on the jock culture, the brusque atmosphere of work at a post office and the scenes from the failing marriage of Vann's landlord and landlady.

The pretty locations of the set are a mistake, however, because to make this limp fable work, the director needed a bad small town, a background in which death is merciful--not an affluent town with plenty of sun, palm trees and a nearby beach.

The Minus Man's interest in serial killers goes very wide but not very deep. I think what intrigues a younger audience in killers is the young person's fury at all of those stodgy, ugly old people taking up their space. When Mickey and Mallory rampage in Oliver Stone's reprehensible Natural Born Killers, they go get ugly people, lecherous people, old people. It's a pop eugenics program.

That celebration of dumb hatred is one reason to dislike pictures in which the serial killer is the hero, but I've got another: How can you enjoy a hero who only has one response to trouble? Ultimately, The Minus Man turns out to be nothing you'd want to drown a granny over .

'The Minus Man' (R; 112 min.), directed and written by Hampton Fancher, photographed by Bobby Bukowski and starring Owen Wilson, Mercedes Ruehl and Janeane Garofalo, opens Sept. 24 at selected theaters.

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From the September 13, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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