No Match to Master Hitchcock

A SCENE in ``The Pelican Brief'' reminded me of a distinction Alfred Hitchcock used to make between surprise and suspense.

Surprise happens when characters are eating in a restaurant and a bomb goes off under their table. The audience jumps with amazement, and you have a few seconds of hair-raising cinema.

Suspense happens when the characters are eating and the audience knows there's a bomb under the table. Everyone watching sweats and squirms throughout the scene, and you have several minutes of hair-raising cinema.

So here are Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington in ``The Pelican Brief,'' where they play a law student and a crusading reporter on the trail of an assassination conspiracy. They're about to drive away in their car, and filmmaker Alan J. Pakula has cleverly let us know there's a bomb attached to the ignition switch.

I squirmed in my seat when Washington put his key into the slot. I squirmed again when he started to turn it but pulled his hand away. I squirmed once more when he started to turn it again, only to yank his hand away when Roberts realized something was wrong.

This scene obviously aimed at Hitchcockian suspense, but my squirms were caused by growing irritation rather than pins-and-needles anticipation. Pakula has studied the classics, and he desperately wants his new thriller to be as thrilling as can be. Unfortunately, though, he's left out a few additional ingredients that Hitchcock identified as necessary to first-rate filmmaking.

One is a carefully developed plot. Another is a set of well-rounded characters. Yet another is rhythmic pacing that draws the narrative from scene to scene even when the story wears thin or stops making sense - as this one does uncomfortably often, with its jumble of incidents stemming from the enigmatic murder of two Supreme Court justices.

Hitchcock nodded at times, of course, but it's the audience that will be dozing off as ``The Pelican Brief'' plods dutifully from one episode to another, tossing in Hitchcockian touches that make up in quantity what they lack in quality. The movie is like a cuckoo clock that marks every quarter-hour by popping a second-rate reminder of the master of suspense into your face.

Shuttling between New Orleans and Washington, the story also shares Hitchcock's fondness for colorful backgrounds and murder in broad daylight as well as the gloom of night. But there's little substance behind the high-concept facades. In place of vision and inventiveness, Pakula gives us moviemaking by the numbers.

The cast is served as poorly as the audience. The hugely popular Roberts apparently hoped for another smash hit with this big-budget entertainment, but her talent isn't expansive enough to overcome the monotony of Pakula's dull images; one scene in particular, where she snoops for information in a mental institution, is downright laughable in its misfired acting and directing. Washington seemed to be on an unstoppable winning streak with ``Malcolm X'' and the new ``Philadelphia,'' but ``The Pelican Brief'' squashes even his glowing abilities.

Such able supporting players as Sam Shepherd, John Heard, Hume Cronyn, and the usually unsquelchable John Lithgow are stuck on the same sinking ship.

Pakula wrote the screenplay, based on John Grisham's best-selling novel. Stephen Goldblatt did the tedious cinematography, although the opening - full of pelicans against a setting sun - is radiant with beauty.

One more warning: At about 140 minutes, ``The Pelican Brief'' is anything but brief. If you're a Grisham fan who's determined to see it, get ready for a long, hard sit.

* ``The Pelican Brief'' is rated PG-13. It contains violence, vulgarity, and sexual allusions.

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