Return to Sender

Why the story makes no sense.
Feb. 1 1998 3:30 AM

Return to Sender

The Postman and other holiday misadventures.

"Plot Holes" is an occasional series assessing the narrative logic of movies.

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Congratulations, ladies and gentlemen of the motion-picture industry--except for you, Kevin Costner--for a holiday-movie season of shimmering coherence. If we allow Tomorrow Never Dies the traditional James Bond logic waiver, only The Postman, of all the major releases, had true lunacy at its heart.

Though Costner's hymn to post-apocalyptic mail delivery was not nearly as bad a movie as everybody said, it did display a riotous disdain for common sense. It wasn't just the little things that didn't add up--wouldn't an itinerant Shakespearean actor know some Shakespeare? If you killed a mule for food, wouldn't you end up with something more solid than a viscous gray paste?--it was the entire premise. The Postman is about a drifter in the bleak and fractured America of 2013 who finds a bag of undelivered mail and, by posing as a letter carrier, rouses the populace to rise up against the evil Gen. Bethlehem. Unfortunately, the movie rests upon the supposition that Americans have such a reservoir of affection for the U.S. Postal Service that a town would break into a spontaneous rendition of "America the Beautiful" when a letter carrier departs on his rounds, or that a man facing a firing squad would yell out--in the unlikeliest line of dialogue of 1997--"Ride, postman, ride!"

Compared with The Postman, the other big holiday movies--As Good As It Gets, Amistad, Good Will Hunting, Deconstructing Harry, Titanic, et al.--were logic incarnate. Sure, wobbles appeared here and there. Woody Allen and Elisabeth Shue as a romantic couple in Deconstructing Harry mark yet another of Allen's attempts to refute the observable laws of the universe, a bit of wishful thinking on par with cold fusion. The fundamental implausibility of As Good As It Gets, in which Jack Nicholson's character magically evolves from a toxic slime ball to an adorably vulnerable neurotic, can be forgiven as a Hollywood fantasy, but there are details scattered throughout the movie that just do not compute. Why, to cite only one example, is Nicholson's character entrusted with the care of his neighbor's beloved dog after he has amply demonstrated his hatred of the animal by tossing it down a laundry chute? Are there no kennels in New York?

Even James Cameron's Titanic, one of the most meticulous films ever made, is not immune to the occasional glitch. In one crucial scene, the vagabond artist played by Leonardo DiCaprio retires with Rose (Kate Winslet) to her sitting room, where he makes a nude sketch of her sitting on a divan as the languorous hours tick by. Meanwhile, her suspicious fiance has apparently been furiously searching for her for much of the night. "There are only so many places she can be!" he rants in frustration to his evil manservant. Hey, guys, did you ever think about checking her room?

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O ne could go on with these petty complaints, but what's the point? In terms of insane-in-the-membrane movie action, the holiday season was downtime. Even Wag the Dog, a film that was consciously conceived as a howler, ran smack-dab recently into its own real-life plot hole. Only after the full-fledged arrival of 1998 did things start to pick up, when the release of Firestorm heralded a return to the usual Hollywood standards of cognitive dissonance. There was much cluck-clucking among movie critics about the dual appearance of Firestorm and Hard Rain, since both were about murderous crimes occurring in the course of natural disasters and both featured kick-ass heroines eager to risk their lives for imperiled stained-glass windows or the abandoned hatchlings of a Steller's Jay. But Hard Rain, though a pretty bad movie, at least had the integrity of its own screwy internal logic. Firestorm, on the other hand, was truly deranged. I realize this movie did not linger long at the box office or spark all-night conversations in coffeehouses, but trust me--it's worthy of study.

My favorite part of Firestorm was an extended sequence in which Howie Long (Howie Long?), playing a U.S. Forest Service smoke jumper, parachutes from a helicopter into the path of a forest fire to rescue a group of killers masquerading as firefighters. He and a captive ornithologist (Suzy Amis) escape from the killers on a motorcycle that they appropriate from a remote wilderness trading post. In the pursuit that follows, the hero rummages around in the motorcycle's saddlebag, produces a chain saw, starts it with one hand, and tosses it over his shoulder into the windshield of the villains' truck. Then--while still gunning the motorcycle down a logging road--he produces a parachute from out of nowhere and straps it on just as the bike sails out over the deepest gorge in the world. After a leisurely free fall, the smoke jumper and the ornithologist land safely, though minor damage to the hero's kneecap serves as an occasion for the new year's most unforgettable line thus far: "I need an orthopedist--and you're a birdwatcher."

Finally, on a much classier plane, there is Fallen. This bleak supernatural detective story has a script by Nicholas Kazan, the talented screenwriter of Reversal of Fortune, and has been stylishly directed by Gregory Hoblit, but both of them are working against long odds here. Fallen is essentially a variant of the vampire genre, and there has never been a vampire movie that made any sense at all. In this case, Denzel Washington plays a homicide detective named John Hobbes who pays a visit to a killer just before his execution. The killer mischievously tells Hobbes a riddle ("Why is there a space between Lyons and Spakowski?"), mutters something in a language that turns out to be Syrian-Aramaic, and then starts singing "Time Is on My Side" as he heads for the gas chamber.

Hobbes follows up on the Lyons-Spakowski riddle and--due in part to a much more responsive and comprehensive version of America Online than exists in reality--discovers that the killer's body had been possessed by the spirit of a dark angel named Azazel. Azazel (who we're told is "sadistic, left-handed, and likes to sing") has the ability to flit from one human host to another simply through touch. What happens if the body he's occupying dies? That's covered in the cobwebbed demonic manual Hobbes conveniently finds in the cellar of an old house. If the host is toast, the spirit of Azazel will die unless it can find a new body within a radius of "500 cubits."

Fallen moves along at a creepy and compelling pace as Hobbes learns the identity of Azazel, pursues him from one body to the next, and tries to outwit him so that he can lethally strand his spirit. But--wait a minute--why is all this happening? Why, if you were an evil sprite like Azazel, would you leave clues for the cagey Hobbes to follow in the first place? Wouldn't you just as soon go undetected, as you have since the beginning of time? I can't remember a movie with more style and less motivation. Fallen works feverishly to keep you distracted from its hollow center but, like a lot of movies these days, it starts to self-destruct well before you've got 500 cubits away from the theater.

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