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'Original Sin'

'Sin' not real original

Friday, August 03, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

During an early scene in "Original Sin," Cuban coffee magnate Luis Vargas (Antonio Banderas) attends the theater with his American mail-order bride, Julia (Angelina Jolie), and also a business colleague and his wife. Luis and Julia are too busy locking lips to notice that intermission has arrived. The colleague's wife turns her glance from the stage to the lovers and huffily declares, "Cheap melodrama!"

 
 
'ORIGINAL SIN'

RATING: R for strong sexual content and some violence.

STARRING: Angelina Jolie, Antonio Banderas.

DIRECTOR: Michael Cristofer.

Critic's call: 1 1/2 stars.

   
 

Couldn't have said it better myself.

All right, so maybe it isn't cheap. "Original Sin," set in Cuba in what looks like the late 19th century (although it was filmed in Mexico), drips with atmosphere. The film's stars certainly occupy lofty spots in the Hollywood firmament. The movie also boasts respectable bloodlines -- it is based on Cornell Woolrich's novel "Waltz Into Darkness," which also was the basis of Francois Truffaut's 1969 film "Mississippi Mermaid."

But as potboilers go, this is Hannibal Lecter cooking his brains out. This is Emeril preparing a banquet. This is Banderas and Jolie stripping down and doing the dirty, with such conviction that according to some gossip sheets the stars kept a-rockin' after the cameras stopped a-knockin'.

This is the story of a man who has been fortunate both financially and cosmetically. Yet he has to send off to America for a bride? He is expecting the plain woman in the photograph he holds, but he gets Jolie, who claims she lied so that she would not be loved just for her beauty. He replies that he lied about his monetary status for the same reason. "That means neither of us can be trusted," she replies.

Turns out she's half right. Vargas is not only rich and handsome, he is also considerate and generous with his wife. It is clear Julia is hiding something about her background, but Luis begins to uncover the truth only after he has left the barn door wide open. A detective on her trail (Thomas Jane) complicates matters.

The movie just keeps going, through each new revelation and plot twist (most of which are just recycled old plot twists) until we think we know what must happen before the characters do.

But that also may be attributed to the device of having the story narrated by someone relating what has already taken place. (In fact, the gimmick seems to tip the movie's hand halfway through, although it may be more likely the studio did -- the movie's opening date was pushed back at least once.) We know it is Jolie talking because the first thing we see is a tight close-up on those notable lips, for which thousands of bees must have sacrificed their stingers.

It turns out Vargas is the one character who is exactly what he seems. The other characters take the position that he is a naive fool who makes the mistake of believing in the power of love. "Original Sin" is nothing if not cynical, right down to its coda, which allows the film basically to contradict its own sour statements.

Director-screenwriter Michael Cristofer -- who also helmed Jolie's breakout performance in the 1998 TV movie "Gia" -- doesn't help matters by incessantly employing such self-indulgent visual techniques as incremental jump cuts and a restless camera swirling all around many of the shots.

And, yes, Cristofer is the playwright who has turned out such thoughtful fare as "The Shadow Box" and "Amazing Grace," which received its world premiere at the Pittsburgh Public Theater a few years ago with Marsha Mason. But how are you going to keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Jolie?

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