Saturday, October 29, 2005

Darkly funny Panic hits sweet note

For a movie called Panic, writer and director Henry Bromell's feature film debut (now available on DVD) is surprisingly quiet, funny, and touching. If it's possible to have a sweet movie about a family of hitmen headed by the coldest parent this side of Mommie Dearest, Panic is even almost sweet.

Despite the title, the movie emits not so much a sense of hysteria as a sense of the inevitable. Though the plot's unfolding is full of mapped-in-advance revelations, the talented, name-brand cast breathes vitality into an understated film.

“I've got two jobs,” says Alex, played by William H. Macy with hints of his befuddled Fargo role. “I run a small mail order business out of the house – lawn ornaments, kitchen gewgaws, sexual aids, things like that. And the rest of the time? I work for my father. I kill people.”

Alex, going through something of a mid-life crisis, yearns to quit the family business but is afraid to confront his father – ruthless Michael (Donald Sutherland), intent on building a dynasty. Alex visits a psychologist (John Ritter) to work through his angst, unintentionally drawing him into dear old dad's web.

Tracy Ullman is Martha, the clueless wife unaware of her husband's other career but aware of his unhappiness, while Neve Campbell pulls off with grace her role as the vulnerable woman who attracts Alex.

It is a lesser-known actor, though – young David Dorfman, playing Alex and Martha's 6-year-old son Sammy – who shines through Panic. He acts as Alex's moral impetus – what Alex will not do for himself, he will do for his son. Never overly cute, Dorfman also steals the best lines of the movie.

Writer/director Bromell comes straight from the world of television (Homicide: Life on the Street, Northern Exposure) with this studied and ironic vision of a man caught in an emotional trap. His deft touch, along with the finer performances of the cast, pull the audience along to the final escape.

Originally published in The News (Mexico City), October 24, 2001.