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Figgis to the fore with "Timecode"

Timecode (Showbiz satire, color, R, 1:37)

By Dennis Harvey

SAN FRANCISCO (Variety) - He's tried and tried again, but this time Mike Figgis has finally done it: The form is the content in "Timecode," a fascinating, sometimes exhilarating, experiment in which four continuous shots -- that's four separate feature-length takes -- occupy the screen throughout, as an ensemble cast's dialogue-improvised multiple storylines overlap and crisscross.

Putting digital video technology at last to a (relatively) mainstream commercial use that's innovative technically and artistically, pic is sure to create considerable buzz, particularly within the industry itself. Sophisticated audiences are likely to respond well to this one-of-a-kind (so far) exercise. Whether it'll survive in the marketplace long enough for them to get the chance is another question entirely.

Reasonably enough, given both the possibilities and hair-raising logistical demands inherent in this project, Figgis has chosen to set his creative bungee-jump smack in downtown L.A. There, he tracks 20-odd primary characters, all of whom have some direct or indirect relation to the film industry.

Pic's beehive is the Sunset Boulevard HQ for Red Mullet Inc., a rising production company co-founded by Alex Green (Stellan Skarsgard), who as matters commence is very, very late in arriving at the office. Things have gotten bad for him lately: A crumbling marriage to Emma (Saffron Burrows, first seen relating the gory details to her shrink) has fostered out-of-control drinking and other reckless behavior.

But collective sympathy is running thin today. Main concern is the imminent shoot of auteur Lester Moore's (Richard Edson) new screen epic and the helmer is wrapping auditions for the title role, with starlet Cherine (Leslie Mann) last in line.

Meanwhile, wealthy Lauren Hathaway (Jeanne Tripplehorn) is keeping a keen eye on her untrustworthy young lover, Rose (Salma Hayek), an aspiring thesp who claims she's got an appointment with Lester. She doesn't -- but she'll do anything to get one, and that urgency has already led to an affair-in-progress with Alex. Unbeknownst to Rose, suspicious Lauren has planted an audio bug. Through it, she soon overhears her girlfriend shamelessly shag Alex just behind a screening-room scrim where execs have gathered to view their prospective topliners.

That's hardly the only predatory sexual liaison revealed here, though not all are deployed to similar slapstick-comic effect. Troubled Emma wanders the afternoon streets, stumbling into more than one old flame. When Alex proves no help, Rose continues her desperate audition-stalking in the lobby, while Lauren remains paralyzed with shock outside.

Upstairs, the execs await a "brilliant" European talent who's deigned to give them a feature pitch. When she finally shows up, squired by her agent (Kyle MacLachlan), avant-garde prima donna Ana Pauls (Mia Maestro) flabbergasts all by doing a sort of semiotic performance-art piece, complete with a boyfriend's (Alessandro Nivola) rapping hip-hop accompaniment.

Adding to the sense of imminent chaos are several increasingly severe seismic tremors. A gun provides narrative climax. Then four cell phones allow a final grace-chord of mixed irony, tenderness, panic and relief.

Sans the absorbing novelty of its presentation, "Timecode" might well look like the emperor's new (or old) clothes.

Yet if the satire feels familiar, and the dramatics often contrived, there's rarely a moment here when something funny, intense or cleverly interconnected doesn't keep one's synapses firing on overdrive. Performances are all over the map, making for a delectable goulash of emotional tenors and acting styles.

Tripplehorn arguably walks off with tour-de-force honors here, as eavesdropping Lauren mutely reacts to Rose's brazen betrayal -- going from bewilderment to disbelief, horror, chain-smoking fury and beyond, all with a subtly comic panache. Burrows, another thesp who's on camera nearly all the time, is burdened with pic's most humorless, angst-ridden role, to less rewarding effect. Skarsgard carries the other major histrionic load, vividly limning an exec whose psychological fault lines have chosen today to pull their own 8.0.

Julian Sands provides hilarious running distraction as a New Age masseuse who lets nothing get in the way of his promotional gratis services. Though seldom foregrounded, Steven Weber contribute particularly deadpan biz-ness amongst the office's high-end staff. Danny Huston also stands out as a perennially sunglassed, coked-up security guard.

In a sense, the full "Timecode" experience won't be available until its DVD release, when viewers will be able to focus on one audio track throughout, or create their own, ever-changeable mix.

Dialogue was entirely improvised by the cast within a time-specific story outline designed to have them hit various dramatic marks (particularly the earthquakes) in synch. Pic was shot over two weeks' time in 15 90-minute takes -- release version consisting of the last takes from each of the four cameras.

D.p. quartet's handheld work, live sound recording and other tech factors perfectly exploit the equation's precarious immediacy. Figgis, working with Anthony Marinelli, contributes another ambient-jazz score; other music emphasized includes Mahler's Symphony No. 5, and an Everything But the Girl tune ("Single") that comments rather too explicitly on the action.

All in all, "Timecode" represents a real triumph for Figgis. It's anyone's guess whether "Timecode" signals a new direction for him -- and commercial cinema in general -- or will prove a one-off trick, neat but unworthy of further exploration.

For the record: Though the device has been deployed by experimental and mainstream filmmakers alike for decades, only two prior commercial features come to mind as having used parallel imagery throughout: Andy Warhol/Paul Morrissey's 1966 breakout classic "The Chelsea Girls" (whose reels could be dual-projected in any order) and MGM's obscure '73 flop psycho-chiller "Wicked, Wicked" (shot in "DuoVision"). "Timecode's" sole, fleeting unified images occur during the striking opening-credits seg, designed by mOcean.

Evan Watz .............. Xander Berkeley

Onyx Richardson ........ Golden Brooks

Emma ................... Saffron Burrows

Victoria Cohen ......... Viveka Davis

Lester Moore ........... Richard Edson

Sikh Nurse ............. Aimee Graham

Rose ................... Salma Hayek

Therapist ..............

Auditioning Actor ...... Andrew Heckler

Executive .............. Holly Hunter

Randy .................. Danny Huston

Auditioning Actor ...... Daphna Kastner

Drug House Owner ....... Patrick Kearney

Penny .................. Elizabeth Low

Bunny Drysdale ......... Kyle MacLachlan

Ana Pauls .............. Mia Maestro

Cherine ................ Leslie Mann

Connie Ling ............ Suzy Nakamura

Joey Z ................. Alessandro Nivola

Lester's Assistant ..... Zuleikha Robinson

Quentin ................ Julian Sands

Alex Green ............. Stellan Skarsgard

Lauren Hathaway ........ Jeanne Tripplehorn

Darren Fetzer .......... Steven Weber

A Screen Gems release of a Red Mullet production. Produced by Mike Figgis, Annie Stewart. Co-producer, Dustin Bernard.

Directed by Mike Figgis. Story by Figgis. Camera (color, HDD video-to-35mm), James Wharton O'Keefe, Tony Cucchiari, Figgis, Patrick Alexander Stewart; music, Figgis, Anthony Marinelli; music supervisor, Louise Hammar; production designer, Charlotte Malmlof; set director, Jennifer Gentile; costumes, Donna Casey; sound, Robert Janiger; sound editor, Patrick Dodd; assistant directors, Gary Scott Marcus, Jonathan M. Watson, Greg Zekowski, Philippe Dupont; opening/end title design, mOcean; casting, Amanda Mackey Johnson, Cathy Sandrich. Reviewed at the Van Ness 1000, San Francisco, April 18, 2000.