When a script is fleshed out enough, you feel as if you could follow even minor characters into the next room, away from the camera’s eye, and watch them live out their quirky little lives sequestered away from the main plot.

In Eyewitness, it often feels as if the filmmakers are more interested in exploring those side rooms than the dark conspiracy at the story’s heart. It’s distracting, but because of the quality of the acting, you find yourself enjoying it all the same. In a normal thriller, the cops tailing a suspect might swap grizzled patter between sips of coffee. But in this movie, they vent private disappointments: One prays he’ll retire without having killed anyone; the other is adopting, and is skeptical he’ll be able to love the child as if it were his own. Neither of these characters are crucial to the plot, but they’re real enough to walk off with their own stories.

Despite several strong individual scenes, the end result is a pretty scatterbrained effort from writer Steve Tesich, who combined two scripts in order to come up with this film. The core of the movie, though, is a thriller: Janitor Daryll Deever (William Hurt) discovers a dead body at work one night. When the crime triggers a media circus, Deever sees the chance to be interviewed by the gorgeous reporter Tony Sokolow (Sigourney Weaver). He claims to know more than he does, and she takes the bait for a date. Predictably, both of them get too close to the story. Unpredictably, that story has more than a few weird twists in it, layering subplot on top of subplot until you either don’t know what’s going on or don’t believe it.

It’s usually the latter, especially when it comes to Daryll and Tony’s romance. Darryl’s initial contact is toe-curling, and not in a good way. He’s obsessed with the TV news-anchor he watches every night, and some of his lines sound like Travis Bickleisms. When they first meet for an interview, he blurts out that she’s beautiful and he wants to see her again. After dropping her off at her apartment a night later, he delivers a come-on that would be Mace-worthy coming from any other janitor’s mouth. He offers to “buff” Tony’s floors: “I’m real good. A pro. First I … strip the old wax. Then I lay down an even, smooth coat. Then I buff it…and buff it…gently. Slowly. Till it beams.”

Read out of context, he sounds like either the most boring man alive or a sex predator, but William Hurt saves the role. It helps that Hurt is handsome, and with his nebbishy glasses, he comes off more like Clark Kent minus Superman: Mild-mannered and sweet, if a little dull. It still shouldn’t work. He’s a blue-collar Vietnam vet with a dysfunctional family; Tony is an Upper West Side girl. But like a lot of things in this movie, you’re willing to give the script a pass and see where things go because the characters are interesting enough, and the scenes between them are genuinely affecting or funny.

That’s also true of the Israeli activist with a shadowy agenda (Christopher Plummer), Darryl’s dim-witted, racist friend and the police’s chief suspect (James Woods), and yes, even the detective, sighing over regrets (Morgan Freeman). Unraveling the mystery comes second to supplying an ensemble piece, a slice of New York that strains the imagination but endures to entertain.

Andrew Good is a film critic and writer living in San Diego.

Comments (1)

On October 6, 2010 at 5:56 PM, riv wrote...

Best line in a movie, 1981

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