The first thing we hear in “Playing God” is David Duchovny’s familiar voice, and for the moment, everything’s fine: Duchovny’s laconic, sardonic tone makes him one of the few actors who can do narration well, and he sounds every bit the world-weary film noir antihero.
But soon, we’re wondering what went wrong: Duchovny might sound like Philip Marlowe, but the movie looks like “Starsky and Hutch.” Duchovny doesn’t just get most of the good lines; he gets lines that sound like he walked in from a better film. His character is well-constructed; the others are made of cardboard.
And as you watch “Playing God” unfold, you start to believe that it would have gone straight to video if not for Duchovny’s presence. Interesting - an actor from the disparaged world of TV elevating a theatrical film to a level of respect.
Duchovny is Eugene Sands, a disgraced doctor whose motto might be, “Physician, overmedicate thyself.” His drug addiction led to a patient’s death and his own downfall, but through the haze he still retains enough expertise to save a gunshot victim at a seedy bar - and attract the attention of a beach-boy mobster who needs someone to make house calls when associates take bullets.
If Duchovny is perfectly cast as someone whose fatalism has caused him to numb his pain and go through life on cruise-control, Timothy Hutton is all wrong as Raymond Blossom, the peroxided villain. Sometimes, it looks as though Hutton’s “Ordinary People” breakthrough was a fluke. In that role, he constantly seemed like he was going to shatter into a million pieces, but here, he holds together too well for the role. When he finally shows signs of cracking, it’s too late, and too sudden, as if someone flipped his go-loony switch.
Despite their disparate backgrounds, Eugene and Raymond form an uneasy friendship. It’s complicated not only by Raymond’s criminal activities (which form a muddled subplot about smuggling “merchandise” to Chinese gangsters), but by Eugene’s attraction to Raymond’s cool-as-a-cucumber girlfriend, Claire (Angelina Jolie).
Key plot twists rest on Jolie’s shoulders, including one involving a loose-cannon FBI agent (Michael Massee, in a Willem Dafoe-esque performance). She carries them well, but the whole movie begins to fold under its own weight.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Playing God” Location: East Sprague, Lyons, Coeur d’Alene Credits: Directed by Andy Wilson, starring David Duchovny, Timothy Hutton, Angelina Jolie Running time: 1:34 Rating: R