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Tuesday, September 2, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 61.0° F  Fair
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Palmetto
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"Down these mean streets a man must go," Raymond Chandler famously wrote in "The Simple Art of Murder," his metaphysical how-to guide on the writing of detective stories. Whether we're talking about pulp fiction or pulp fiction's kissing cousin, film noir, those mean streets have usually been found in one of two places: among the vertical spires of New York City or the horizontal sprawl of Los Angeles. But what about Florida, with its palm trees, its white beaches, its swamps, its hurricanes, its rich retirees, its freshly laundered drug money? Is the Sunshine State not a breeding ground for lust, greed and corruption, the three main ingredients of film noir?

I can think of only a few noir films set in Florida: Key Largo, Body Heat, "Miami Vice" (which was shot like a film). In the way of pulp fiction, there's Carl Hiassen's cops-and-cons novels, some Elmore Leonard (e.g., Rum Punch, which Quentin Tarantino moved to California and retitled Jackie Brown) and John D. Macdonald's Travis McGee mysteries. But that's about it. German director Volker Schlöndorff, best known for adapting European heavyweights like Günter Grass (The Tin Drum) and Heinrich Böll (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum), must have felt like Columbus dipping his toes in the choppy waters off Florida's magnificent coastline when he signed on to Palmetto, a neo-noir starring Woody Harrelson and Elisabeth Shue. The whole state's just lying there, waiting to be taken.

It's still lying there. In Body Heat, Lawrence Kasdan emphasized Florida's subtropical lushness--the hot-and-heavy air that slows down a man's reflexes. Palmetto is Body Heat without the body heat, just the perspiration. A film of sweat coats everything and everybody in the Gulf Coast town of Palmetto, where Harrelson's Harry Barber has just returned after serving two years of a four-year sentence for a crime he didn't commit. Now, he feels like the town owes him one. Enter Rhea Malroux (Shue), a dangerously curved beauty whose walk wouldn't pass a sobriety test. Rhea has cooked up a scheme to fake the kidnapping of her own stepdaughter, which should be good for a $500,000 ransom. All Harry has to do is write the ransom note and pick up the money.

Ah, if only life--i.e., a life of crime--were that simple. Between Rhea, who seals her deals with more than a kiss, and Rhea's stepdaughter Odette (Chloe Sevigny), who doesn't even wait until the deal's been sealed, Harry has his hands full, so to speak. Then, in a plot twist, Palmetto's D.A. offers Harry a job handling the press reaction to the very kidnapping he just helped fake. This all might have made for a hot time in the old town tonight if Schlöndorff had a feel for either the old town or a hot time. Like so many neo-noirs, Palmetto veers into self-parody. There's a moment when Shue, holding a cigarette aloft, haughtily announces "I don't smoke" when offered a light. That's right out of Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid.

Shue, so effective in Leaving Las Vegas, doesn't have the life-threatening sexuality for film noir, despite being poured in and out of her clothes. She's a femme, no doubt about that, but she's not a femme fatale. As for Harry, he's supposed to be putty in Rhea and Odette's hands, but the way Harrelson plays him he's closer to Silly Putty. What happened to this movie? Perhaps the Florida sun boiled everybody's brains.

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