In theory, there's a lot to like about Robert Zemeckis' new What Lies Beneath, a gothic supernatural thriller with unmistakable feminist undertones, but little of it makes it into the film itself. In fact, not much makes it besides a lot of timid, familiar spookery of the "did you hear that?" variety. Having just dropped off her daughter (Katharine Towne) at college, Michelle Pfeiffer begins to suffer from a profound case of empty-nest syndrome, a situation exacerbated by husband Harrison Ford's obsessive devotion to his career. Left alone, she begins to hear mysterious noises and embarks on a Rear Window-style investigation of a new neighbor who appears to have murdered his wife. But, as anyone who's seen the film's overly revealing trailer knows, it's not so simple, the strange disturbances instead the product of an unrestful local ghost (played in glimpses by House Of Style alum Amber Valletta) with an unclear connection to Pfeiffer's past. From Zemeckis' long, sweeping takes to Alan Silvestri's decidedly Herrmann-esque score, Zemeckis never tries to hide his Hitchcockian ambitions. Which would be fine if he made good on those ambitions; for evidence, look no further than a half-dozen early Brian DePalma films. Though Zemeckis would seem to have the technical chops to pull it off, the film's clockwork structure drains it of almost all suspense. An early scene finds Pfeiffer fumbling with a cell phone only to be helpfully informed by Ford that it won't be in service range until they reach the halfway point on a bridge, a bit of information that has the sound of one shoe dropping. Even the subtext feels mechanical: Pfeiffer plays a woman who abandons her job for a husband. Her ghostly companion was an unpredictable party girl with few inhibitions. Together, their characters may as well be called Yin and Yang. The team of Pfeiffer and Ford, now two of our most exhausted-looking stars, hardly helps. It's not that either has turned into a bad actor, exactly; it's just difficult to remember the last time either seemed to care, or had a part that made caring worth the effort. There's a dog named Cooper who at one point manages a more soulful expression than either of his human costars. Zemeckis deserves some credit for an unusual, ingeniously staged (if not all that effective) final act in which small gestures have severe consequences. But by the time he arrives at what would appear to be What Lies Beneath's sole reason for existing, it's much too late to matter.
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