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Writer-director Michael Cristofer reteams with Angelina Jolie for the first time since her Emmy-winning performance in HBO Films Gia. Unfortunately, neither Cristofer nor Jolie has done as well by the other this time. In Gia, the insertions of post-mortem commentary by friends and family of Gia contributed to Cristoferís tale of a glittering yet tortured phenomenon who no one could really explain. Original Sinís main narrative is intercut with the enigmatic and grim narration of Julia (Angelina Jolie) as she awaits execution. Few of her deadpan comments add any real understanding or suspense to the main action. They merely alert us to the fact that things are not what they seem and that someone in addition to Julia will end up badly -- undercutting rather than contributing to any sense of suspense. The tone of Jolieís flat narration flits from vaguely romantic, to tragic, to melodramatic, to comically ironic -- so the audience is never clear what kind of movie this is.

Though great movies are often the result of mixed genres, this screenplay is not smart enough to fulfill one set of expectations. However, the skeleton of the plot holds some potential of originality. Luis (Antonio Banderas) is a Cuban coffee broker who is expecting the arrival from America of his fiancée, a plain woman from Delaware who he knows only from their correspondence. He has no interest in love; that might interfere with business. He merely wants a wife young enough to bear him children. Of course, Julia is not plain: she explains that she sent him another womanís picture because she didnít want to be desired only for her looks. Similarly, Luis had told her that he was a man of modest means, because he did not want to be desired for his money. Both accept the enhanced versions of their promised partners, though Julia cautions that "neither one of us can be trusted." Luis falls madly in love with his new wife--which as he suspected turns out to be bad for business.

I can imagine many movies that Original Sin could have been. It's at its best when it is a lush romance, particularly the beautiful setting and the gorgeous stars. Jolie is at her most beautiful in this film, and much has been made of the realistically passionate love scenes. Though I could accept the use of slow-motion photography as part of the romantic feel of the movie, the gritty, stop-action camerawork feels totally out of place here -- merely another pretension. The romantic intensity of the film is undercut by the constant reminders that this film is a clever puzzle -- and no one can be trusted. Thomas Jane appears as a charming and persistent detective named Walter Downs who alternately solves or complicates the puzzle. However, the pieces of the puzzle are not clever enough to be worth following.

The historical setting of the film is interesting, but Cuba never becomes more than a backdrop, a locale selected by throwing a dart at an antique map. The film contains the ingredients for social critique -- the marked differences between rich and poor, the vestiges of colonialism, or the strong influence that Americans seem to have in Cuba. Luisí business partner, Alan Jordan (Jack Thompson), and his wife (Allison Mackie) are both American, and Jordan plays an intimate role in all aspects of Luisí life. (Thompson is a welcome solid presence in this film. Itís a shame that he wasnít allowed to do more). Yet, in the end the film cares no more for Cuba than Julia cares for her Delaware wardrobe.

At other times, the film pretends to be a psychological thriller, hinting at the past tragedies of Juliaís life that make it impossible for her to believe in Luisí love -- but neither the film nor the actors dig deep enough to portray the anguish that would make their emotional journeys compelling. As Thomas Janeís character becomes more sinister, I was impressed by his cleverness yet I never believed that he was truly threatening. Maybe that comment also sums up the filmís problem as a thriller. This film is not quite a passionate romance, a postmodern mystery, a costume drama, or a suspense thriller. It's merely a collection of interesting conceits that never quite add up.

And who knows what the title refers to? Maybe itís related to one of those unexplained gaps, like who killed Juliaís canary, how Luis could have been set up as a conís mark if he was supposedly thought a clerk, or why everyone in Cuba except for Luis is American?

If Michael Cristofer had shown more restraint and Angelina Jolie and Antonio Banderas had shown less, this could have been a memorable film. As the film stands, the producers would have released this film direct to video if it had featured anyone but Lara Croft and Zorro.


[rating: 1½ of 4 stars]


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Photos: © 2001 Metro Goldwyn Mayer. All rights reserved.