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Pulp Culture
'Hannibal' the
movie lacks
novel's heart


February 22, 2001
By Franklin Harris

The following review of "Hannibal" -- the movie, not the novel -- contains no jokes about cannibalism, no puns about gourmet cooking and no "clever" one-liners about "Eating Italian." If you're looking for such things, look elsewhere.

I've read more than a dozen reviews of "Hannibal," and my unscientific analysis reveals that 64.2 percent of all "Hannibal" movie reviews include one or more lame attempts at culinary humor. If I see any more of it, my eyes will bleed.

So, if that is what you want, go read the reviews at www.rottentomatoes.com and leave me alone. Do not e-mail me your cannibal jokes. I know where you live.

Now, on with the review.

"Hannibal" is a frustrating movie, because it's a good movie that could have been a great one.

One moment it dazzles you with gorgeous cinematography, courtesy of John Mathieson, and the next it confounds you with boneheaded continuity mistakes: Watch as Agent Starling's earrings change from studs to hoops before your eyes.

On the one hand, it is amazing that director Ridley Scott and screenwriters David Mamet and Steven Zaillian keep as much of the plot from Thomas Harris' brilliant but misunderstood novel as they do. They retain the gruesome dinner scene, which is as wonderfully surreal a cinematic moment as you'll find anywhere outside of a 1970s Italian horror movie. On the other, they toss out Harris' ending and replace it with one that looks like it came out of a focus group -- specifically a focus group fresh from viewing another of Anthony Hopkins' recent films, "Titus."

Comparisons to both the source novel and to the preceding film, "The Silence of the Lambs," are unavoidable. "Hannibal" the film is nowhere near as good as either "Hannibal" the novel or "The Silence of the Lambs," a movie that adhered as closely to its source material, both literally and thematically, as anyone could hope.

When last we left Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins), the ultra-cerebral psychiatrist, cold-blooded killing machine and gourmet cannibal had just escaped from police custody -- killing several police officers and wearing the face of one of them as a disguise.

Meanwhile, FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling, formerly portrayed by Jodie Foster, had just nabbed a notorious serial killer and graduated from the academy.

Ten years later, Lecter has assumed a new identity, that of Dr. Fell, an expert on Italian Renaissance art, and taken up residence among the fountains and statues of Florence, Italy. He is comfortable but growing restless, if you know what I mean.

An ocean away, Special Agent Starling, now played by Oscar nominee Julianne Moore, finds herself flattened against the glass ceiling. She ends up a scapegoat for a failed drug raid and endures harassment from her superiors, especially slimy Justice Department bureaucrat Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta).

It's a status quo begging to be upset, which is what happens when Lecter's only surviving victim, a billionaire pedophile named Mason Verger (Gary Oldman under more makeup than Tammy Faye Bakker), decides to get revenge against the good doctor, who left him crippled and horribly disfigured.

Although he has offered a reward for information leading to Lecter's capture, Verger is getting impatient. He hatches a plan to draw Lecter out, with Starling serving as bait.

Also on Lecter's trail is an Italian policeman, Rinaldo Pazzi, played by Giancarlo Giannini.

Pazzi, who has a beautiful wife with unfortunately expensive tastes, wants to catch Lecter and collect Verger's hefty reward.

You can't fault "Hannibal" for its performances. Hopkins knows Hannibal is a larger-than-life character and hams it up accordingly. Meanwhile, Moore makes for a better Starling than Foster ever did, even if her character's reduced role means she has less of a chance to shine. Moore, at least, knows what a proper Southern accent is supposed to sound like. Foster's Clarice sounded like she was from West Virginia by way of the Bronx.

But the best performance comes from Giannini, whose morally ambiguous Pazzi is the character with whom the audience can most identify and sympathize.

Still, ultimately, "Hannibal" is a movie that has had its heart ripped out. The new ending changes the story's moral tone completely. Whereas Harris' Hannibal is clearly an antagonist of mythic proportions, making the villainy even of creeps like Verger seem petty in comparison, Scott's Hannibal is just an anti-hero.

Harris tricks you into rooting for Lecter before reminding you of the monster Lecter is, while Scott gives you two hours of guilt-free entertainment with a screwy climax.

So, "Hannibal" succeeds as entertainment at least. But it could have done so much more.

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