Kevin Spacey Epic Fail Case File #145/My Year of Flops II #42 The Life of David Gale

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The Concorde…Airport ’79, yesterday’s Case File here at My World of Flops, fascinated me because it seemed exclusively designed to flatter the ego of star George Kennedy, who always struck me as a hard-working professional devoid of ego and pretension. He seemed like the type of stand-up guy who did his job, and did his job well, and didn’t think his profession made him any different or better than anyone else. 

2003’s The Life of David Gale, in sharp contrast, was seemingly custom-designed to bolster the already Texas-sized self-regard of star Kevin Spacey. If Kennedy has no ego, Spacey is all ego, a crazed narcissist whose complete inability to understand his many faults, or acknowledge their existence, torpedoed his career after The Usual Suspects and American Beauty catapulted the hammy theater veteran and probable sex criminal to superstardom. 

The role Spacey shamelessly over-plays here fits snugly into his wheelhouse playing egotists who think they are better than everyone else, and act like they’re better than everyone else, because they are better than everyone else. They’re more intimidatingly intellectual, better read and more erudite. They’ve deeper intellectually and emotionally. They behave as if the rules, legal and ethical, that govern other, lesser mortals do not apply to Uber-mensch like them, who may look like men but are actually Gods. 

“Your record’s brilliant. You’re an original voice, worth in today’s ‘scarcity defines value’ capitalist system under which we toil, your weight in gold” a beefy good old boy tells David shortly after his previously charmed existence as the rock star philosophy professor of the University of Texas at Austin is ruined by the false rape accusations a sexy co-ed who angrily demands that he service her sexually in a bathroom at a raucous college party. 

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The Life of David Gale looks much different from the vantage point of 2019, when the issues the film deals with so glibly and tastelessly are at the forefront of a screamingly urgent cultural conversation. Its title character borders on an Incel hero. He’s an unbelievably (literally, you can’t believe the horse shit the movie throws at you) brilliant, admired, passionate, articulate warrior for his beliefs, a philosopher of course, like the saintly Jordan Peterson, who has sex twice in the movie and is falsely accused of rape both times. 

The first time saintly David Gale is falsely accused of rape it costs him his otherwise thriving career as a professor and author. The next time he’s accused of sexually violating a women who actually begged him to have sex with her it costs him his life after he receives the death penalty in Texas, where, to be fair, they’re so gung-ho about capital punishment that they execute people for certain minor traffic offenses. 

Ah, but David Gale is playing a bigger game than the legal system and the press can possibly imagine, being so vastly inferior to him. David Gale is playing 5th dimensional Chess in zero gravity and the feeble man-animals he’s effortlessly manipulating are all, “Duh, Checkers is too hard for me! I just made a boom boom in my diaper!” 

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Like his star-making turn in The Usual Suspects, The Life of David Gale’s framing device finds his oily, murderously pragmatic schemer beguiling someone with his words, his beautiful, beautiful words, and by extension Spacey’s acting. 

ACTING! Is there anything it can’t do? 

In The Life of David Gale, Kate Winslet is the lucky thespian who gets to hear all those exquisite words as Bitsey Bloom, a hotshot reporter with a famously flexible sense of ethics whose persona is described as “Mike Wallace with PMS” in an unfortunately typical bit of overwrought dialogue. 

The actor playing Bitsey’s intern is so awkward, and so amateurish that it begins to feel like he’s an intern as well, only instead of interning at a magazine he’s interning as an actor in a real Hollywood movie, that his dad is the producer and even though he’s distractingly bad he’s getting hands-on experience in the film industry and college credit all the same. 

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Bitsey’s bosses have plucked down a cool half million dollars for the right to interview David Gale in the days leading up to his execution for raping and murdering Constance Harraway (Laura Linney, poor, poor Laura Linney), his passionate academic colleague and fellow bigwig in the movement to abolish the death penalty in Texas. 

We alternate between talky scenes of Gale monologuing at Bitsey about his life and non-crimes  and flashbacks to his life as an academic before everything came crashing down around him. David Gail begins the movie on top of the world. Gorgeous young women throw themselves at him during class and off the clock, not accepting “no” for an answer. 

At parties, he drunkenly favors adoring colleagues and students with ribald limericks. His son adores him although, in yet another MRA-friendly development, his soon to be ex-wife is cheating on brilliant David Gale with a damn European in Europe (talk about adding insult to injury!), with an earthy Italian she is perpetually traveling to Italy to hook up with. 

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Then that false rape accusation ruins his life and his career in one fell swoop. Even though the conniving temptress who all but forced this middle-aged man to have sex with her at the college party dropped charges and skipped town, Gale’s legal innocence means nothing to gossipy college rumormongers for whom a good man’s life and career mean nothing compared to sketchy, recanted rape allegations. 

Conventional wisdom holds that the best way to play drunk is to underplay it, to act as if you are most assuredly NOT drunk, and, to be honest, resent the accusation that you are. Spacey goes in the opposite direction. His eyes are dead and glassy. He slurs and stammers and broadcasts his dissolute drunkenness to the cosmos.

Instead of playing Gale’s descent into alcoholism as a compulsion he desperately wants to tame but cannot control due to the abundant sadness and brokenness of his life and career, Spacey acts like he’s trying to win first, second and third prize in a “World’s Sloppiest Drunk” competition that exists only in his mind. 

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The Life of David Gale gives Spacey a drinking problem to over-play egregiously, a bottle of hard liquor perpetually either in his sweaty hands or within arm’s reach in case Spacey’s silent movie-broad drunk mugging is too subtle for the mouth-breathers in the audience. It gives him lots of monologues to deliver and a screenplay with not one but two “shocking” twists. Pretty much every scene here is Kevin Spacey’s big scene. 

What The Life of David Gale does not give Spacey is an actual human being to play. It’s a testament to how astonishingly unsympathetic the Oscar-winner is here that it wasn’t until a good ninety minutes into the film that it even occurred to me that I should be rooting for the title character, that I should be emotionally invested in his fate because he is a brilliant man, and a passionate man, and a man who has needlessly suffered the awful indignity of multiple false sexual assault allegations from women with agendas. 

I found it impossible to care about Gale or any of the characters here because it is achingly apparent that the movie does not care about them as anything other than the cynically designed components of a Rube Goldberg contraption of a plot.

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The film’s first act is full of conversations about how if Texas were to execute someone who was subsequently conclusively proven innocent it would embarrass Texas—which the movie depicts as loving the death penalty only slightly less than it loves cowboy hats and barbecue—into ending the death penalty. 

Heck, the Conservative Governor of Texas flat out promises to retire the electric chair if something that incredible and unprecedented (despite, you know, it happening all the time, and lots of people being freed from death row after being found innocent) in a television debate with David Gale he wins definitively with his “False Executions never happen here in Texas, yee-haw!” finishing move. 

So it will come as a surprise only to people who are very slow, or have not been paying attention, that the death sentence of Texas’ most brilliant voice against capital punishment is not quite what it appears to be. David Gale keeps feeding Bitsey clues until she finally puts it all together and realizes that Verbal Kent is actually Keyser Soze, and has been all along. 

To be honest, I found that twist pretty derivative. No, David Gale keeps feeding the journalist breadcrumbs of information that (SPOILER) eventually reveal that Gale did not kill his colleague. A videocassette Bitsey receives indicates that Constance Harroway committed suicide with the help of a shadowy figure known throughout the film only as “The Cowboy” on account of he wears a cowboy hat and lives in a dump. THEN, in a stunning turn of events he takes OFF the cowboy hat and puts on a suit and it’s like, “Whoa! Is this even the same guy?!?” 

The film seems very impressed by his transformation. You will not be. That’s twist number one. Twist number two is that, actually. David Gale was there the night Constance died and collaborated with the Cowboy and Constance to fake a murder as a way of ending the death penalty in Texas by illustrating that at least once they killed the wrong guy. 

Oh, incidentally, Mellisa McCarthy is in this and she's good and funny.

Oh, incidentally, Mellisa McCarthy is in this and she's good and funny.

Of course, Gale DID go out of his way to frame himself and mislead the police and legal system, which are crimes in their own right. I’m extremely anti-death penalty but Gale’s wrongful execution is a weird “Gotcha” stunt played at the expense of what I imagine is a deeply unamused legal system rather than conclusive proof that the state killing prisoners is morally wrong and needs to end.

The Life of David Gale posits Spacey’s boozy schemer as a shitty Christ figure. Sure, he willingly lays down his own life so that others might live. But he’s a real creep about it, a jerky Jesus to be sure. Plus, he’s played by the supremely unlikable Spacey for maximum unintentional creepiness. 

Alan Parker’s gimmicky melodrama has nothing to say about the morality of the death penalty. I just spent 130 minutes being jerked around by the film and I still have no idea how it feels about capital punishment. 

Is it pro capital punishment? Is it anti-death penalty? The filmmakers themselves don’t seem to know. In a sense it doesn’t matter since David Gale cares about these characters and these issues only to the extent that they serve a plot and lead performance that are both overwrought, hysterical and unconvincing on every level. 

Spacey’s real-life status as someone accused of many sex crimes casts a shadow over The Life of David Gale so long and so dark it threatens to engulf it in inky blackness. 

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The film is full of moments that ring bitterly ironic now, none more pointed than when David Gale protests “I was innocent!” about the first sexual assault allegations and his now-former colleague replies, “You don’t get it, do you? You’re not politically correct, Dr. Gale.” 

With its appallingly insensitive take on rape, false accusations, the death penalty and alcoholism, The Life of David Gale would like to flatter itself into thinking it’s politically incorrect but really, like so many “politically incorrect” provocations, it’s just garbage. It was worthless at the time of its release and has only gotten creepier and more unforgivable in the years since its release.

Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco

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