When I was in high school, I befriended a girl with untreated manic depression. During her highs, she was charming and energetic, always ready with an adventure to pursue, but her lows, which came totally without warning, left her despondent, paranoid and inconsolable. I had no idea how to deal with someone who was gregarious and vivacious one minute, morose and teary-eyed the next.
Watching Lucky Number Slevin brought back memories of those roller coaster times. The movie careens between spunky banter and utter ghoulishness with enough volatility to give me whiplash. It features some great scenes, snappy dialogue and appealing performances, but the erratic tone keeps the pieces from fitting together well.
Josh Harnett stars as Slevin, an amiable guy mistaken for some poor sap who owes a considerable amount of money to two rival crime lords, The Boss (Morgan Freeman) and The Rabbi (Ben Kingsley). Slevin takes the misunderstanding in stride, despite that the fact that nearly everyone he meets either bloodies his nose, pummels him in the stomach or tries to pressure him into committing a felony. One notable exception is Lindsey (Lucy Liu), the chatterbox across the hall who appreciates Slevin’s tendency to walk around the apartment half naked. The other is as a mysterious hit man (Bruce Willis)who lurks in the shadows and whose motives are unclear.
Like other post-Pulp Fiction crime movies, Lucky Number Slevin makes a fetish of its dialogue. Particularly in the earlier scenes, conversations are rapid, arch and highly self-aware. Hartnett has the style down cold. His character’s breezy nonchalance at his predicament makes the unlikely scenario even more amusing. Liu is a delight as well. Too often she has been boxed into flat dragon-lady roles, but her enchantingly bubbly performance in Slevin makes it clear just how unfortunate that kind of stereotyping is. Also breaking stereotypes is Freeman, who seems to relish the opportunity to play someone who isn’t a grandfatherly mentor. His scenes with Hartnett are some of the best in the movie.
Unfortunately, the witty banter of those scenes eventually gives way when a gruesome revenge plot reveals itself. The slick filming and deliberately kitschy set design remain (crazy-bold wallpaper everywhere!), but the happy-go-lucky pizzazz disappears in all the blood. I, for one, missed the lightness of the setup, and although the brutal climax isn’t without precedent — it fits the prologue — the tonal shift still feels awfully abrupt.
Nevertheless, Slevin is well made and very well cast. (The perfect choice of an actor in one small role is only apparent at the end of the film.) Perhaps I am being unfair, pouting that Slevin isn’t what I initially thought it was. I can only say that I wouldn’t have been so disappointed with the later scenes if I hadn’t enjoyed the earlier scenes so much.