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Double Jeopardy

Review by Cynthia Fuchs
Posted 24 September 1999

Directed by Bruce Beresford 

Starring Tommy Lee Jones, 
Ashley Judd, Annabeth Gish, 
and Bruce Greenwood

Written by David Weisberg and Douglas Cook

There's something satisfying about watching a beleaguered woman get revenge on a lowdown-scumsucker of a husband. True, there's also something satisfying about substantive characters and plots without whopping big holes in them. But you can't have everything.

This seems to be the conclusion reached by the makers of Double Jeopardy: it omits substance but delivers a neatly vengeful climax (which is never in doubt, by the way, despite several maladroit attempts to create "suspense" or "complications" in the plot that is only going where it must go). The tradeoff appears to be structured as a rudimentary moral opposition. You have a clearly defined victim and villain, in this case a young and pretty (and unnervingly naive) wife/mother and a consummately despicable husband/father. Indeed, the deck is so stacked for you to identify with Libby that it's hard not to feel a brief twinge of pleasure when she rises up, bloodied and exhausted, to smite her oppressor.

Even more distressing is the fact that the film is populated with skillful actors who have done excellent work elsewhere, and directed by Bruce Beresford, who has done solid work in the past (Breaker Morant and Tender Mercies stand out as subtle explorations of familial and political milieus, even if Driving Miss Daisy is notoriously offensive on precisely these counts). This film actually looks very good -- the scenes are generally well-cut, the slow motion effects used to convey the protagonist's distress aren't too fatuous, and the melodrama is tolerable. The question you're left with, the one that picks at you throughout the film, however, is this: how did such a talented and experienced company imagine they could salvage such a silly script?

Written by David Weisberg and Douglas S. Cook, the film resembles their first big hit, The Rock, in its predilection for rollercoasterish thrills and illogics. The film begins with basic, thumbnail introductions. Libby (Ashley Judd, who hasn't had a role worth her talent since her first one, in Victor Nunez's lovely Ruby in Paradise) is introduced sitting outside her huge seaside home in Seattle, spending quality time with her adorable young son, Matty. She loves her son and her husband Nick (Bruce Greenwood, incredibly good in two recent Atom Egoyan movies, Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter, and slightly less wonderful in Disturbing Behavior and the TV series Nowhere Man). Her life seems so perfect -- what can she possibly want?

Conveniently, she wants a sailboat, which provides her Nick with exactly the bait he needs to set her up for his murder. The movie doesn't waste any time establishing his deceitfulness: when he tells Libby that he's willing to go sailing with her, the camera lingers on his distanced expression and his exchanges of meaningful looks with Libby's supposed "best friend," Angie (Annabeth Gish, who also has not had a decent part since her sensational debut in Desert Bloom). The fateful day comes: Libby and Nick sail, make love, drink wine. She wakes in the middle of the night with blood all over her. She runs to the deck to scream for her missing husband, and lo! finds a knife which she promptly picks up just in time for the Coast Guard to shine a spotlight on her.

Libby goes to prison for murder (with no body in sight) and convinces Angie to adopt Matty, for his sake of course. Where Libby's lawyer is during any of this is unclear. In prison, she phones Angie, hears Nick in the background, and is suddenly horrified that she has been so laughably gullible. Luckily, she meets Margaret (Roma Maffia, who also needs a better agent, after performing so consistently well in TVís erratic series, Profiler), a former lawyer who tells her about this fifth amendment outlawing double jeopardy (being convicted twice for the same crime). She can kill Nick.

Now that she has a goal, Libby turns into Linda Hamilton: she goes running in the rain, pumps iron, and does sit-ups in her cell, apparently for six years. Once released, she's assigned to a parole officer, Travis Lehman (Tommy Lee Jones, who should be sick of this bounty hunter role by now, having played versions of it in The Fugitive, U.S. Marshals, and even Men in Black), who takes a particular interest in her case when she dumps his beater car off a ferry, slams him in the head with his own gun, and escapes his custody while a crowd of ferry-riders watches the show. Not to be outdone by a woman, Travis makes it his personal mission to track down Libby, as she, in turn, tracks down Nick.

It would appear that Double Jeopardy fancies itself a feminist film, because it features a potent woman who kicks ass and is a good mother to boot: ostensibly, the reason she does any of what she does -- almost drowning, getting nailed into a coffin, jumping through windows, running down long stretches of beachfront -- is because she loves her son so very much and wants to retrieve him from his dreadfully self-centered dad.

It's possible that a more credible plot and critique might be made concerning the judicial system that incarcerates people with no evidence, the incarceration system that puts all kinds of inmates in cells and cafeterias and showers together (thus creating criminals rather than rehabilitating them), or even the insurance system that allows preposterous policies to be signed and paid, despite manifestly corrupt intentions. But no. Basing the plot in an array of unlikely relationships, individual displays of fortitude, and preposterous opportunities for betrayal makes the whole shebang seem trivial and tacky. So much for women's issues and rights.

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