Magill's Survey of Cinema



In this tale of intrigue and deception in the Deep South, a wealthy and corrupt New Orleans political candidate, Cray Fowler (James Spader), is blackmailed when he is videotaped making love to a young Asian woman, Lee (Charlotte Lewis). When Lee is charged with the murder of her father, Cray represents Lee in court, where the assistant district attorney happens to be his former girlfriend (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer).

The stewpot of New Orleans' seamy nightlife is the setting for this view of the underworld of Louisiana politics. The title STORYVILLE apparently refers to New Orleans' pre-World War I red-light district. A rising star candidate for a congressional seat, the brooding Cray Fowler (James Spader) is seduced by a beautiful Vietnamese girl, Lee (Charlotte Lewis). Cray's own marriage with the infantile Melanie (Justine Arlin) has been failing, and his boredom with his life increases despite the intense political race in which he is involved. He has grown up in a town his family runs and owns, yet he appears to have no personal stake either in his own life or in his political career. As one critic commented, Cray Fowler seems so nonchalant about everything that he hardly deserves to attain any of the high goals to which he aspires in the film.

Evocative of SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE (1989), STORYVILLE is a thriller partially about seeing and being seen. Cray is unraveling dual mysteries. The first concerns his father's death in the midst of an investigation of the mineral rights to the St. Albans Parish land that has enriched the Fowler dynasty. The second involves his own framing by the Vietnamese girl and her father. The viewer follows the sordid unravelings of the dark Fowler family secrets. Viewers also observe the development of the callow youthful candidate for the House of Representatives from a wastrel scion of the aristocracy into a professional trial lawyer and people's advocate capable of compassion for those less fortunate than himself as well as passion for justice. Cray's father had died under mysterious circumstances in the bayou on the eve of testifying before a grand jury on what he had discovered about the mineral rights to certain parcels of land the family had bought up years before. His death had been regarded as a suicide, but since it is witnessed in the opening frames of STORYVILLE, the audience believes otherwise.

At first Cray, whose older opponent in the election has a twenty- point lead over him in the polls, appears a shallow opportunist, a spoiled little rich kid. Having caught his wife in an affair and possessing photographs to prove it, he is musing over what appears to be an inevitable divorce from his even more shallow wife (her favorite exclamation is "Goody! Goody!"). He also reminisces over his true love, New Orleans District Attorney Natalie Tate (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer). She is a hard-hitting lawyer who is truly more than his match in the courtroom and in romance, but before they can reunite, the passive Cray is seduced by Lee, an Asian aikido instructor masquerading as a waitress at his campaign luncheon. While serving him a drink, she slips him a covert invitation to meet her later at the nightclub Storyville. The mysterious Lee leads him to her apartment, past a pornographer's bizarre antics. Once inside, she has a martial surprise for him: by the end of the evening, after a steamy scene in the Jacuzzi, she has disappeared.

Limping the next day, Cray is questioned as to whether he met up with some rough trade. Soon he is being blackmailed. The torrid affair turns ugly when Lee visits him, fainting on the way up the stairs because her father has beaten her. They return to her apartment to find her father quite unwilling to be reasonable. Eventually Cray, in the midst of his congressional race, defends Lee in court against a charge of murdering her father.

The film's photography is majestic, with a memorable initial movement through water, the camera cruising the swamp in which the hero's father has just been shot. Indeed, the best landscape sequences are sweeping shots of the bayou, either in the rain, with a solitary family retainer gazing out at the wilderness of rushing tide and marshes, or with the sun setting on the tidal waters. These images conjure up Cray's sense of the loss of innocence and his abiding conviction of futility.

Beautiful landscape shots, however, cannot disguise the thinness and improbability of the plot. Why would an intelligent attorney like Cray Fowler leave his door open to an unknown caller, bidding the person to come up, when he has a top-secret government publication lying on his living room table? Indeed, the candidate's lack of defensiveness is almost ludicrous at times, since it gets him into so many scrapes; his inability to predict danger seems out of character in an aspiring representative from Louisiana. It seems unreasonable that he blindly follows a girl whom he has just met into the seediest part of New Orleans.

IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967) and other such Southern thrillers are among the forebears of this film spanning three generations of a Louisiana ruling-class family, but in STORYVILLE the implications of character and plot are not fully developed. Only Jason Robards' performance as the duplicitous uncle and schemer extraordinaire, Clifford Fowler, is impeccable, wholly above reproach. Clifford is a brilliant foil for Cray, stealing every scene in which he appears. Both Spader and Whalley-Kilmer seem to be under a directorial injunction to appear hard and impassive: There are long, still shots of them staring at each other, especially in the closing sequence, but their would-be attraction seems too deadpan and unfeeling for characters who are meant to be so passionate. In fact, a major problem with STORYVILLE is that the characters lack an essential ingredient: any real feeling for one another. Everyone is so caught up in power games that in the end it is hard to care about what happens to the ill-fated lovers or to those innocents accused of murder in the culminating trial.

The trial literally ends with a bang, and the disparate elements of the plot are knit together in a conclusion satisfying to a mystery lover; yet some indefinable element is lacking--that vital ingredient which turns a technically good film into a great film.

As ever, James Spader is eminently watchable--sexy and handsome--but here he lacks the charisma he brought to SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE and WHITE PALACE (1990). This is not the energetic Spader, the hungry, hard-driving person who realized the prior roles; he is genial, smiling, and relaxed here, but he is not a hero. (Reviewed by C. Langdell.)

Review Sources:
Boxoffice. November, 1992, p. R-82.
The Hollywood Reporter. January 24, 1992, p. 6.
Los Angeles Times. August 28, 1992, p. F8.
The New York Times. August 26, 1992, p. B3.
Rolling Stone. September 17, 1992, p. 103.
Variety. January 24, 1992, p. 2.

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