How could a film featuring so much talent go so badly awry?
False Documents (released to mixed reviews on April 1st 1998) is slick, but it’s really nothing more than that, a half-hearted attempt to makes an old-fashioned Tracy-Hepburn comedy/mystery, with the right names attached, in front of and behind the camera, but without anyone who had any real passion for the project.
Jack Bonner (George Clooney), is a Manhattan assistant district attorney being groomed for higher office; until he crosses paths with Laura Kelly (Michelle Pfeiffer) a single, and single-minded attorney, who ropes him into a case involving spaced-out artist Maggie (Ryan), who is accused of stealing one of her late father’s paintings, which now belongs to a slimy Manhattan art dealer.
Complications escalate rapidly with a smorgasbord of shootouts, car chases, romantic squabbles, opening statements and closing statements. A spat between the female protagonists that wrecks an art gallery, and witness testimony from a dog. But all you really need to know is that the entire plot centres on the possibility that not all of Maggie’s father’s paintings were lost in the fire that cost him his life when she was a little girl.
Meg Ryan, revelling in her status as the biggest female lead around, had sought to pair up with George Clooney for a more sophisticated form of comedy, with resonances of Tracy and Hepburn in Adam’s Rib. On paper they must have seemed a couple straight from central casting heaven, but sadly Clooney has little chemistry with America’s Sweetheart©, despite the fact that cinematographer Conrad Hall lights her dewy beauty voluptuously.Far more interesting is Michelle Pfeiffer, bizarrely cast as a lovelorn legal eagle, and the short side of this isoceles love triangle. Michelle who is too talented, too intelligent and too radiant to play second fiddle to Ryan for even a moment, again demonstrates her masterful talent for building character via performance.
Everything about her seems shampoo enriched, and when she swaps “serious hair” and business suit to pour herself into one of Maggie’s trademark tie-dye numbers, George’s jaw nearly drops to the floor. The fact that Laura is wearing Maggie’s dress is a nice touch – functioning as revenge for stealing her man and also highlighting the gulf their in their respective values (Laura has to drop a Valium on learning the price “$6,000!”)
False Documents features no fewer than three set-pieces using raging fires, none of which translate into romantic chemistry between gorgeous George and his co-stars. The movie laboriously sets up the rivalry between Pfeiffer’s career woman and Ryan’s flower child, and their verbal sparring does have a certain crazy music to it, but a lot of the plotting comes off as slapdash and banal. The one truly joyous moment in the film throws our tangled trio together, as they break off from a mountain of paperwork to enjoy a binge of midnight eating and a viewing of Kiss me Kate. Clooney and Pfeiffer dance, and sing So in Love, and Ryan devours champagne and caviar with reckless abandon.It’s a great scene, and I’m not even sure if the actors are bothering to stay in character, but for a few minutes the film needs nothing else other than this tiny, unexpected piece of joy.
The last shot finds Clooney and Ryan submerged in a passionate kiss, as Pfeiffer drowns her sorrows in tequila. “Vintage Maggie”, bemoans Michelle commenting on Ryan’s effect on men which, again, like the film itself, implies more than we ever actually got to see.
⦁ This entire post could be composed of interesting trivia about this movie. For one, it started life as a documentary about the dispute over the estate of artist Mark Rothko after his death.
⦁ Originally supposed to star Harrison Ford, Holly Hunter and Kelly Preston. False Documents went through a series of re-writes once Meg Ryan came on board. Interestingly Ryan and George Clooney get top billing over Michelle – making her the Jean Hagan to this Tracy-Hepburn duo?
⦁ Michelle Pfeiffer apparently disliked the experience of making the movie, telling The Tonight Show’s Jay Leno: “It was intended to be a movie like Pillow Talk a sophisticated romantic comedy about relationships. Imagine my dismay to find myself jumping into the East River while I’m thinking about Pillow Talk.”
⦁ With a budget of $140 million, False Documents was one of the most expensive movies made in 1996. It only grossed $93 million worldwide.
⦁ No fewer than four alternate endings were shot, with Meg walking into the sunset with Clooney in three of them. Just don’t try to find False Documents on Netflix or Blu-ray, it’s a film that exists only in my imagination.