Malice (1993)

Malice is without a doubt the odd duck in the Aaron Sorkin filmography. More so than possibly any modern American screenwriter, Sorkin is now synonymous with “politics”, with work that peers into the lives of the men and women who already live under intense scrutiny – The West Wing is possibly still his greatest example in this regard, but The American President and Charlie Wilson’s War deal in similar arenas. A Few Good Men also exists in this vein, as does the tech-giant exploration The Social Network; neither are about politicians per se, but “politics” is broader than simply politicians. Sorkin’s politics exist in the hot topics of today, whether it’s the relationship between foreign powers or relationship status between two of your friends on Facebook. One can imagine that Jobs, Sorkin’s upcoming biopic on the late Apple founder, will continue this trend.

But Malice, Sorkin’s second produced screenplay, isn’t about famous people. Instead, it’s about incredibly moronic people. Bill Pullman stars as Andy, mild-mannered loving husband to Nicole Kidman’s Tracy. One day they meet Alec Baldwin’s Jed, a hotshot surgeon who used to go to high school with Andy. They hit it off and Jed rents the room above Andy and Tracy because he’s new in town. Meanwhile, a series of vicious attacks on local women occurs – and when one ends in murder, things begin to hit closer to home for Andy.

The immediate reaction – possibly as a fault of the writing, possibly as a fault of Baldwin’s acting – is to assume Jed is bad news. He’s new in town, he’s suspiciously successful, he’s suave, his hair is perfectly coiffed – he fits the suburban psycho bill pretty well. A soliloquy like this isn’t necessarily a confidence booster:

It does, however, tease an interesting possibility: Jed is just an asshole. The set-up of him as the bad guy might have been hitting us over the head for a reason other than “yep, it’s him”; while we’re so distracted by the obviousness of it all, maybe Malice has actually been pulling the wool over our eyes this whole time. Maybe Bill Pullman’s Andy is a little too nice…cue dramatic strings swell…

Oh, it turns out to be Jed? We were right from the beginning? Very exciting. There’s definitely a twist in Malice, but it’s not the one we deserved after sitting through that first half. Early in the film a guy carrying a big filing cabinet or something (very inconspicuous) lingers in a shot a little too long, and if he looks like Jigsaw that’s probably because it’s Saw star Tobin Bell. He comes back, of course, in a scene that’s supposed to be incredibly climactic – and yet Bell’s character is about as useful to the plot of Malice as you or I are to the plot of Malice. The whole murder thing evaporates and the back half of Malice focuses on a completely new plot by the characters who sat around during the first half.

Sorkin wrote the story for Malice with Jonas McCord and turned it into a screenplay with Scott Frank, and so the involvement of other writers – something that’s very rare in Sorkin’s portfolio – may have something to do with the meandering storyline of Malice. There are certainly Signs of Sorkin along the way – Baldwin’s speech in the clip above might bring a Social Network Zuckerberg deposition rant to mind; there’s also a character named Lillianfield, which is also a guy in The West Wing. Overall, though, the final product is something very un-Sorkinlike.

In the action-packed still featured above, Andy and Jed sit at a bar talking about how much better Malice could be. Andy asks why are we making such a big deal about this? Jed shrugs and posits that Aaron Sorkin could easily have relegated himself to this kind of movie for the rest of his career, so it’s important to note that he paid his dues and whatnot and learned gradually how to write a beautifully effective script. Pssh, Andy scoffs. You’re telling me the guy who penned this aimless and forgettable mystery movie is going to eventually be one of the most unique screenwriters around? Jed shrugs again and says something idiotic, like wouldn’t that be a twist.

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