No Brief 'Pelican'

ANY MOVIE THAT STARTS WITH THE assassination of two Supreme Court justices (one bumped off in a gay-porno theater) shouldn't have too much trouble grabbing your attention. Alan J. Pakula's The Pelican Brief, from the John Grisham best seller, niftily plants its hooks into the audience, promising a taut, paranoid thriller along the lines of the director's early gems, "Klute" and "The Parallax View." The promise, however, is only half fulfilled in this glossy, reasonably diverting entertainment, whose tone of self-importance ultimately can't disguise the rickety flimflammery of Grisham's tale.

The murders bring out the intellectual sleuth in New Orleans law student Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts), whose professor/boyfriend (Sam Shepard) was a protege of one of the dead justices. Darby writes up her conspiracy theory in a speculative legal brief she calls "pelican," and when it's turned over to the FBI, it hits a big nerve. Immediately, corpses begin to pop up. Terrified, narrowly escaping several attempts on her life, Darby turns to Washington investigative reporter Gray Grantham (Denzel Washington) for help. Dodging ubiquitous hit men, the two strangers team up to uncover the nefarious plot, which, to no one's surprise, reaches into the highest corridors of power.

The most suspenseful damsel-in-distress stuff comes in the first half, which includes the grippingly staged murder of an FBI man. But midway, once the audience is let in on the contents of her brief (a mild let down), the tension flags and the cliffhanging devices get more desperately implausible. (At 2 hours and 20 minutes, this is no brief "Pelican.") Pakula's always had a cool style, tending toward solemnity, but let's face it, "All the President's Men" this movie is not. You wish he'd have a little more fun with the pulpy material. But the dialogue has no sparkle and he dampens down his actors, as if a lack of juice were verisimilitude. (Robert Culp as a slightly dotty, Reaganesque president and John Lithgow as Gray's impatient editor do liven things up.) Washington underplays suavely; it's almost impossible to muffle his charisma. But Roberts's fans, who have been waiting for her return to the screen for two years, may not feel they're getting maximum star wattage for their bucks. The role requires her to be reduced to a state of whispery panic most of the time. She does it well, but what a waste. Why strip the vivacious Julia of her best colors?