It’s nighttime in the city. Twins Janie (Tammy Hui) and Joanie (Vicky Huang) prepare for bed, one slipping under the covers, her pillow over her ears to block out her sister’s stereo and ritual feeding of the cat (“Kitty, kitty”). That Joanie turns on the shower and wears her bra and panties, exposed beneath her open robe, establishes her vulnerability, as does the handheld camera that approaches their apartment door. Just a couple of minutes into 88 Minutes, the girls are best by the Seattle Slayer, hanged upside down by one leg, bleeding from cuts achieved with a scalpel in close-up, their faces fearful and their limbs splayed.
This tedious set-up leads directly to the movie’s emotional focus, forensic psychiatrist Jack Gramm (Al Pacino). Backed by the surviving twin’s testimony (Janie cannot positively id her sister’s killer) and “circumstantial evidence,” Gramm asserts the absolute guilt and pathology of the alleged Slayer, Jon Forster (Neal McDonough). Convicted and sent to death row, he vows revenge in the way that serial killers do in the movies, threatening Gramm: “Tick tock, doc,” he hisses. Right. It’s the first of many allusions to the film’s title, and it lays out the movie’s interminable dearth of imagination.
Cut to “Nine years later” typed over a view of Seattle’s Needle. Gramm is toiling away at his celebrity, his university teaching job, and occasional consultations with the local PD and the feds. Lo, just hours before Forster’s scheduled execution, a copycat murder is discovered. Same use of halothane to subdue the victim, same ropes and pulleys, same underwear and bloody outcome, only this time the vic is one of Gramm’s pretty students. The crime scenes, pronounces Guber (Christopher Redman), a DA who looks about 12, “totally matched.” Gramm sighs and provides the requisite instant analysis: someone is attempting to cast doubt on Forster’s conviction, stay the execution, and show up the doctor’s work as wrong. Guber and Gramm’s FBI agent buddy Frank (William Forsythe, once again underappreciated), both nod in agreement. And then the significantly named Guber drops the other shoe: he believes Gramm might be wrong.
Gramm dismisses the charge and heads off to teach, though he’s rattled by a phone call that informs him he has 88 minutes to live, with the inevitable sign off: “Tick tock, doc.” His subsequent and strangely slow-moving investigation leads to numerous suspects, including his students (good girl Lauren [Leelee Sobieski], vaguely rebellious Mike [Benjamin McKenzie]), a surly-looking young man on a motorcycle, Gramm’s TA Kim (Alicia Witt), and an especially odd colleague, Carol (Deborah Kara Unger), who shows up primarily so the camera might linger on her pale blue eyes and so underline her spookiness.
As he contemplates the possibilities, Gramm’s own weirdness is revealed. Not only does he not inform his forensic psych students that their classmate has been brutally murdered (he explains later that he was testing their non-responses, looking for suspects), but he also takes repeated phone calls during class, then almost assaults a student using his phone to get the latest Mariners’ score. As erratic as such behavior may be, however, Gramm remains a profoundly dull victim-investigator, essentially a generic vehicle for the plot’s ticking away.
He’s introduced in his bed, gazing across his apartment at last night’s one-off, the naked and extremely limber Sara (Leah Cairns), then leaves her alone in his apartment. She’s someone he picked up in a bar the night before, a plot point made excessively clear in repeated sepia-toned flashbacks (these bland and obvious images come up every time Gramm pauses to Think Hard About the Case). When Gramm starts questioning Kim as to her activities last evening, following her drinking at the same bar, she chastises and pouts: “I didn’t end up drunk in bed with a stranger like you!” While another movie might invite close parsing of such ambiguous dialogue, this one only shows again that it’s just poorly written, clumsily acted, and not worth your time.
By the time Gramm’s time is reduced to something like an hour, you realize that he’s fortunate to have at least one efficient team member, otherwise the movie would run even longer. His assistant Shelly (Amy Brenneman)—most frequently spotted on the phone, as she manages info back at Gramm’s office—keeps track of phone calls, searches through all manner of files, and sets up multiple media connections for him. Though he insists he’s grateful, Gramm remains annoyingly self-centered and sloppy in his own thinking. (A favorite query, uttered by Gramm and others, goes like this: “Who do you think would do something like that?”) When he suggests that they’re made for each other, Shelly reminds him that it would never work: “I’m gay and you’re a commitment-phobe,” she teases. You need to know about this lesbian thing, because it’s a not-so-interesting plot point later, but Gramm barely hears her, as he’s headed to his next investigation destination, where he will find still more useless non-evidence.
Gramm’s carelessness is increasingly annoying, less a characterization than a function of slack scripting. When Kim starts tagging along, he repeatedly puts her in danger—in the line of gunfire, exploding cars, and bad drivers—and looks vaguely surprised when she admits her longtime crush on him with a teary-eyed flourish (As he drags her into a suspect’s apartment, she worries about legal niceties: “We don’t need a search warrant,” he asserts, “We’re not arresting anyone we’re just breaking and entering”).
Still, you can’t really blame him for not paying attention. Not only is he beset by a careening camera, but he’s also called on to perform silly stunts, rolling on the pavement when he’s almost hit by a fire truck, running across campus and up staircases, knocking Kim to the ground to protect her from an exploding car. Even more odiously, he’s got a hackneyed doozy of a motivating trauma: his little sister was brutally hacked to death when she was 12 and he was supposed to be looking after her. Boo-hoo!
To underline Gramm’s anguish (and exacerbate yours), Jon Avnet’s film returns again and again to Forster’s face on MSNBC, an interview that goes on for the duration, appearing on various background screens. The killer complains loudly about his accuser’s “voodoo forensic science,” used in the course of “psychobabbling innocent people into the death chamber.” The film’s most harebrained scene is also telling, in its way. Gramm decides to call in to the interview, in order to “Get inside his head, make him crack!” The exchange, however, suggests the opposite, as Gramm begins fuming and yelling and shifting in his chair, a bad-TV-procedural version of an interrogation. The boys’ throwdown reveals nothing. Neither man comprehends the lunacy of the plot, however, leaving that tiresome deciphering to you.