Thriller Aims For Class But Comes Off Pretentious

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XX "Seven," with Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow, Richard Roundtree. Directed by David Fincher, from a script by Andrew Kevin Walker. Alderwood, Crossroads, Everett Mall, Factoria, Issaquah 9, Kent, Kirkland Parkplace, Lewis & Clark, Mountlake 9, Oak Tree, Puyallup, SeaTac Mall, Uptown, Valley drive-in. "R" - Restricted because of language and violence. -----------------------------------------------------------------

Were it not for the gravity and thoughtfulness of Morgan Freeman's performance as a retiring policeman, and the third-act appearance of its bizarre villain, "Seven" would be unendurable.

As it is, this 128-minute collection of gratuitous grisly effects and even more gratuitous literary allusions never comes close to the classy suspense thriller it clearly thinks it is. Gussied up with references to Dante and Chaucer and Thomas Aquinas, and a hero who uses Cliff's Notes to comprehend them, this could be the year's most pretentious Hollywood film.

The title refers to the seven deadly sins, which a serial killer is punishing by brutally murdering seven people in seven days. A fat man is punished for his gluttony, a lawyer for his greed, a model for her pride, and so on. The murders are apparently intended as a series of "medieval sermons," a wake-up call to a civilization that doesn't know it's become utterly corrupt.

Unfortunately, first-time screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker is a compulsive name-dropper who can't stop long enough to give the frequent references to "Paradise Lost" and "The Canterbury Tales" a meaningful contemporary context. His gimmicky creation of a killer with an oddball game plan works no better here than it did in "Theater of Blood" or "Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?"

The director, David Fincher, who made the equally portentous and wearying "Alien 3," seems to think the darker the image, the more profound the resonance. Trained on music videos, he also has a thing for fuzzy, jerky credits, which give you a headache before the movie has begun.

Brad Pitt's star power isn't sufficient to bring to life the Cliff's Notes detective, whose final scenes call for a sense of tragedy that the rest of the film simply can't justify. Gwyneth Paltrow, as his sweet schoolteacher wife who complains that she can't find a decent school in the city, never gets beyond victim status. John C. McGinley has a couple of amusing office scenes, but Richard Roundtree is wasted.

That leaves Freeman, as the older, wiser detective who is forced to work with Pitt's relatively inexperienced cop. This gives him the opportunity to observe and point out the callow mistakes of his partner, yet Freeman never allows these comments to come off as just nasty put-downs.

"It's impressive to see a man feeding off his emotions," he says after Pitt tries to beat up a reporter. Freeman says it matter-of-factly, almost as if he weren't intending it as criticism, which of course makes it all the more devastating.