November 05, 1990 12:00 PM

Jeremy Irons, Ron Silver

It’s too bad this film is based on a real-life case—that of Claus von Bülow, the idle New York City socialite convicted and then acquitted of trying to murder his fabulously wealthy wife, Sunny, who has been in a persistent vegetative state for almost 10 years (see p. 87).

For one thing, you know how the story will end. For another, it’s doubly silly that director Barbet (Barfly) Schroeder and writer Nicholas (Frances) Kazan insist on having Glenn Close, as Sunny, speak from her comatose state in voice-over—”This was my body,” she intones, as the film begins.

These considerations, among others, compromise brilliant performances by Irons and Silver. Irons, portraying Von Bülow as an unjustifiably arrogant man of crocodilian mien, creates a memorably vivid character. Silver, as Von Bülow’s appellate attorney, Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, matches Irons; his Dershowitz is a self-righteous egomaniac who convinces himself he is working for a constitutional principle when he clearly is obsessed with the gamesmanship of getting Von Bülow’s conviction overturned.

However valid the characterizations are (the film is based partly on Dershowitz’s book on the case), Irons and Silver have zeroed in. Thanks to them and Schroeder, you feel you know two deeply cynical men, even if you’re unlikely to have sympathy for either of them—or for the law’s ability to obscure truth with rules. (It’s not Close’s fault that she makes relatively little impact; hers is a passive role even in flashbacks.)

Yet the film remains unsatisfying.

At the end Silver and his fictionalized assistant-former girlfriend, Annabella (Cadillac Man) Sciorra, exchange scenarios about what really happened: Silver argues for Claus’s innocence, Sciorra for his guilt.

In addition to shielding the film’s producers from libel suits, this cop-out reflects the vagaries of real life: We don’t always find out what happened. What we must accept in real life, however, we needn’t settle for in art. Mixing reality and fiction, without using that mixture to produce any substantial addition to our knowledge, this movie at once goes too far and not far enough. (R)

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