|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 01 June 2004|
PACIFIC HEIGHTS is an attempt at an urban thriller based on an unusual threat -- the loss of a house -- and it almost works, due to Melanie Griffith and the powerful, eerie performance of Michael Keaton. Matthew Modine tries hard, but the role called for someone intensely likable, and Modine simply isn't. He's a decent enough actor, but the camera doesn't "love" him, and his character is bad-tempered and impulsive, so we lose sympathy for him, and patience with the film, all too quickly.
PACIFIC HEIGHTS was called the ultimate yuppie nightmare, because it centers on a couple who are in their early thirties, live in a city -- San Francisco -- and have ambitions, and because the film centers on property ownership, which is classically a yuppie issue. But anyone who owns property can identify to some degree with Patty Palmer (Melanie Griffith) and Drake Goodman (Matthew Modine) in their struggles with their mysteriously destructive tenant Carter Hayes (Michael Keaton). Written by Daniel Pyne and directed by John Schlesinger, the movie doesn't play to these fears as much as it should, and halfway through, begins to lose its initial disturbing edge. The violent climax feels artificial, like a concession to the action audience; a less physically-confrontational ending would have made the film far more satisfying.
Writer Pyne based the script on something that happened to him, and initially it seems reasonable plausible, even when things start to go wrong. Patty and Drake, living together but not married (which is emphasized to no detectable point), overextend themselves in their purchase of a Victorian house in San Francisco's Pacific Heights area. In order to meet their mortgage, they have to have tenants right away. No problem with the bigger apartment downstairs in the back; they immediately rent to a pleasant Japanese couple (Mako and Nobu McCarthy).
However, friendly, ingratiating Carter Hayes shows up at the front door, and Drake and makes plans to rent the other apartment to him. But one morning, they discover that Hayes has already moved in, without paying first-and-last-month rent or the security deposit. Without paying anything at all, in fact. And he simply refuses to pay, or move out, even when he changes the locks and begins behaving even more mysteriously, with loud construction noises emerging from the apartment at all hours. The movie insists that Drake and Patty have no legal recourse at all, but it's hard to believe that they couldn't quickly evict someone who has not paid a penny nor signed a contract (a point the film dodges).
Hayes is weirdly passive when assaulted (possibly to protect himself in court), which makes his climactic assault on both Patty and Drake implausible. He's far more disturbing when he uses economic and social power brilliantly but cruelly than when he gets physical. We can defend ourselves against a physical onslaught, but if we're attacked on a financial level by someone who knows the ins and outs of the system better than we do, we're utterly helpless. That's what Hayes counts on, but he's also helped by the contrived element of Drake turning into a blowtop and behaving utterly stupidly several times.
The movie never makes it clear enough just why Hayes is doing what he's doing, even though there's an elaborate scene in a Los Angeles hotel that makes a stab at an explanation. We learn a lot about his background, but not about his motives. He is nuts, no doubt about it; in a disquieting shot, we see him in his barricaded apartment, watching a blank television screen.
Keaton works in very small gestures here; when you'd expect him to smile grimly in satisfaction, he's expressionless, which is more telling of Hayes' personality than a smile would have been. Only when he's trying a snow job, trying a con game, does he become expressive and lively -- and that's all an act. The real Hayes (and his name isn't even Hayes) remains an enigma, but Keaton makes him a fascinating enigma.
John Schlesinger is a great director in decline, doing workmanlike films without any distinction; PACIFIC HEIGHTS is another of these. He fails to give us a sense of locale, even with the photogenic San Francisco as a setting; he fails to justify the love of Patty and Drake for each other or for the house. He goes berserk with circling camera shots several times, presumably to demonstrate the disorientation of the characters, but he only disorients the audience.
Nonetheless, because the story is so unusual, and because Griffith and Keaton are so good, the movie is worth seeing once. It is definitely not satisfying, definitely not a major work, but it has its own peculiar interest.
Beverly D'Angelo plays a substantial supporting role unbilled; Griffith's mother Tippi Hedren appears in one scene, as does director Schlesinger. And Dan Hedaya also turns up in a small role.
The DVD is another of Warner Bros.' perfunctory releases, the equivalent of a standard VHS tape. As usual with Warners, the soundtrack was remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1, so the sound and score are crisp and clean. This is one movie where a narrative track, possibly by the screenwriter, would have been particularly interesting.