Of all the lies the movies sell us over and over again, the myth of “total recall” — flashbacks, interrogations, reminiscences — may be the most pernicious.
“Memory,” as the star of of “Memento,” Guy Pearce, says in “Spinning Man,” is the least reliable, most problematic area of understanding in the brain. Our mind plays tricks on us, our memories cannot be trusted.
As a college philosophy professor suspected of murder, that’s Evan Burch’s crutch and his defense, although even his wife (Minnie Driver) calls his “absent-minded professor act” played.
“Spinning Man” is an intriguing premise with a promising cast and a hint of sordid titillation about it. That the one-word review of it is “forgettable” is a shame. But when you don’t play fair and don’t build suspense as you don’t play fair, the whole thing unravels faster than the cop who can’t wait to show you the video of that lane change you’re sure you didn’t make.
Burch is teaches in a small college in a small town seemingly overrun with nubile young things with a thing for college professors, even ones with a family and the hard-living mileage Pearce wears on his face.
Cheerleaders where he does his jogging, flirtatious coeds in class, coquettes in the hardware store — what IS a smart guy whose business is parsing words like “truth” and “ethics” and “morality” to do?
When a high school kayak rental clerk at “the lake” disappears, Evan finds himself under suspicion. She’s played by Odeya Rush, aka “Mila Kunis: The Next Generation.” So she’s probably his “type.” She’s a lot of guys’ type.
The suspicion is expressed by Det. Malloy, played by Pierce Brosnan, a tad too old to be a mere detective, but a well-preserved 65 so why not? A Volvo was seen with a guy “watching” the missing girl. And even though you can’t shake a college campus parking lot without rattling a dozen professorial Volvos, Evan is the one they’re wondering about.
The film sets us up for a game of intellectual cat and mouse, one man interrogating the other, the suspect an expert in the exact meaning of words and the use of language.
“What does a philosopher do?”
“Is this relevant?”
Think of philosophy, the teacher says, “as a logical clarification of thought.”
No kidding says the cop. He’s in the business of the “logical clarification of evidence…We’re in the same racket.”
Try questioning a guy like this, though.
“Can I tell you the trust, or can I tell you what I perceive is the truth, what I interpret and remember as the truth?”
We’ve seen the professor buy the most humane mouse trap there is. But we’ve also seen him fantasize about the clerk who sold it to him. There’s a student (Alexandra Shipp of “Love, Simon”) who hints they may have history.
As the wife gets suspicious and pieces of Evan’s alibi chip off, we start to wonder. We do.
Evan’s dreams hint at some encounter with the missing girl. What happened?
Pearce doesn’t give this guy the desperation he needs. But he makes it easy to step into Evan’s shoes — an accusation, seemingly out of the blue. Or is it? Smart people are always leaning on language to extract them from a fix. Maybe he saw “Survivor’s Guide to Prison” (on Netflix). He knows when to stop talking, when to stop cooperating.
Not until he’s called his lawyer (Clark Gregg). He’s a smart cookie. The cops aren’t impressed. Cops even have specific traffic tickets they call “college professor tickets.”
Brosnan does his work by the book, but Driver brings fireworks to a wife and mother of two who doesn’t take much convincing to wonder, “Oh no, not again.”
There’s not a lot here we haven’t seen before, and any hope we’re heading towards another “Memento” shaped exploration of the trickiness of memory and its absolute necessity when you’re fighting for your life evaporates within minutes.
Still, “Spinning Man” keeps on spinning and keeps us interested, until that third act, when all this has to be resolved and the script tumbles all over itself ending, not ending and adding an epilogue that undoes the clumsy wrap-up concocted here.
And here we are, a couple of hundred words later, and “forgettable” is still the label that best fits.
MPAA Rating: R for some language including sexual references
Cast: Guy Pearce, Minnie Driver, Odeya Rush, Pierce Brosnan, Jamie Kennedy
Running time: 1:40