THE COUCH TRIP is already a staple of cinema, New Yorker cartoons, and popular culture. Lately it's been hybridized by placing the mobster into our secular confessional, as thugs and killers bemoan their neuroses in The Sopranos, Grosse Pointe Blank, Analyze This!, and The Mexican. Yet just when it seems that inner conflict is no longer the sole domain of the comfortable upper-middle class, Panic gives us Alex, a comfortable upper-middle class hit man (Fargo's William H. Macy) who reluctantly seeks out a psychologist. "I'm stuck; I'm in a rut," he despairs. It seems a normal complaint to his shrink (John Ritter, yes, that John Ritter of Three's Company), who's seen plenty of midlife crises before.
written and directed by Henry Bromell with William H. Macy, Donald Sutherland, and Neve Campbell runs March 16-22 at Varsity
Problem is, in therapy Alex admits to his lethal occupation as well as his romantic infatuation with another patient he's met in the waiting room—chatterbox Sarah (Neve Campbell), the extrovert to his buttoned-down introvert. Now the shrink knows too much. Alex has said too much, putting his doctor in jeopardy—because for a professional killer, as Alex's overbearing father (Donald Sutherland) declares, "The hardest part is keeping your mouth shut." Always the dutiful son, following in the family business (as we learn in flashbacks), Alex has never broken any rules before.
In return, he's got a good life, a nice wife (Tracey Ullman), and a young son, but beautiful 23-year-old Sarah crystallizes all the simmering discontent that lies beneath his manners. "Stop apologizing," she admonishes polite Alex (who's twice her age). She certainly doesn't. In glimpses of Sarah's tangled Gen-Y personal life outside the waiting room, we see—as Alex can't—how her impulsiveness and recklessness oddly contrast with his safe, methodical existence. True, he shoots people for a living, but he's unwilling to risk changing that well-ordered life.
THAT FAMILIAR THEME, change and its consequences, is both ancient and TV-contemporary—appropriate, since writer-director Henry Bromell is both a novelist and a television scribe-producer (Homicide, Northern Exposure, Chicago Hope). He tips his hand when Sutherland warns, "Everyone has his destiny," i.e., don't tempt fate. That's a sentiment the Greeks would recognize—and an unmistakable harbinger of tragedy. Despite its seemingly comic premise, Panic elicits only intermittent laughter as family conflict builds toward crisis. Bromell constructs these tensions with expert efficiency using short, economical scenes and well-placed flashbacks. (Sutherland, in '70s regalia, coaching teen Alex on his first hit is particularly funny.)
Given such simplicity of plot (in a short 88-minute movie), one has time to appreciate Panic's fine performances, although its male characters are the most well developed. Macy nicely deploys his patented shifty, evasive expression, making Alex furtive and self-abashed. As the old man, Sutherland maintains an air of smiling menace and ruefulness ("My tits are sagging") that culminates in a memorable bowling alley monologue. Ritter's no slouch as the shrink, conveying both concern for and alarm at his patient. Ullman fares best among the women, making her hausfrau fully aware of Alex's dissatisfactions and temptations.
Campbell's role, unfortunately, is weakest, and the bland former Party of Five actress hasn't got the chops to flesh it out. She was more fun to watch running from the serial killers in the Scream series; here she's thanklessly given the generic quirky-girl lines and character that used to be Rosanna Arquette's bread and butter. This screenwriting failure and Panic's gratuitous use of a TV-cute kid (Alex's son) keep the film from becoming something special. What it is, however, is exceptional: a subtle, surprising character study of a misguided soul determined to mend his ways. Murderous Alex's clumsy striving towards something better leaves you with the impression of latent decency that finally gets its own oddly fitting reward.