The Skeptic

2009-05-01 (Limited release)

Check your inventory, pal. I’m all you got left.

— Sully (Tom Arnold)

You know you’re in trouble when the most appealing element your film is Tom Arnold. In The Skeptic, Arnold plays Sully, yet another version of the sidekick that he plays in nearly all his movies. His object of affection here is Bryan (Tim Daly), his partner at a law firm in an unnamed New England town. They share a longtime friendship, where each knows when the other is joking. When his sad old aunt dies, for instance, Bryan arrives late to the funeral, being a workaholic fundamentally disconnected from all things familial. Sully, the nice guy, has been at the funeral, supporting Bryan’s wife and watching the dirt tossed on the casket. When Bryan wonders what he’s missed, Sully comes with the quip: “Her eternal soul being lifted up into heaven.” Giving as good as he gets, Bryan laments, “God, I really wanted to see that.”

Even with this glib business, the film draws a bright-liney contrast between the buddies: Sully, raised Catholic, believes in stuff — the Loch Ness Monster, aliens at Roswell, monsters — while titular character Bryan doubts everything. When they head over to the dead aunt’s Victorian mansion, Bryan believing it’s now his to sell, they talk some more about their differences, Sully extolling the inherently interesting mystery of the aunt’s death: “You lack common curiosity,” he accuses Bryan, “And that’s a flaw.”

Ah, yes. And this flaw will be pried open, picked at, and aggravated by the sorry ensuing plot. For one thing, Bryan’s adherence to his doubts has wrecked his marriage. When he tells his wife Robin (Andrea Roth) that he’s moving into the mansion so they can “spend time apart,” he insists this is “exactly what we talked about.” She’s less than convinced. “Yes, we talked about it,” she says. “But one of us was bluffing. I guess we know now it wasn’t you.” But of course: skeptics don’t bluff.

As much pain as he seems able to inflict, Bryan maintains that he problem is Robin’s, not his (even as he is also neglecting his young, sad-faced son). Bryan says more than once that he is rational, a man of his word who refuses to indulge in emotional mushiness. Robin notes the contradiction inherent in his self-image, that in fact he is “as certain as any fanatic I’ve ever seen.” Bryan can’t countenance this argument, and at first you’re inclined to side with Robin, at least until she pulls out the most hackneyed card in the horror movie deck: “Is it your mother? Baby, is that why you’re messed up?” Err, yawn.

Sully, at least, tries to stay on Bryan’s superficial radar, without all that mucking around in the past preferred by Robin, the local priest (Robert Prosky), and oh yes, Bryan’s shrink (Edward Hermann), who makes a late appearance, essentially to confirm Robin’s guess at what’s wrong with her man. Sully, bless him, stays focused on the house’s apparent haunting, an issue that does eventually lead back to mom, but for most of the film’s running time, is rendered in creaking doors, bumping chairs, and a trunk in the basement full of photos, doilies, and an antique baby doll that sends Bryan into spasms.

Per his plot function, Sully tries to keep it light, appearing one night at the house unexpectedly and scaring Bryan by wearing a mask. “You are such a dick!” cries out Bryan, restored momentarily to his usual sense of superiority in such boy-bonding rituals. Sully then reveals his other reason for stopping by, his concern that in fact his control freak of a best friend is in trouble (he’s missing meetings at work), that he may even be “having some kind of breakdown.” This gives Bryan the opportunity to cast off such doubts, promising never to miss another meeting. Sully takes a step back and offers what amounts to good advice, dressed up in colorful metaphor: “If you need a break, you raise your hand,” he says calmly. “You don’t have to be the good dog who runs until his heart explodes.”

Too late. Bryan’s efforts to find a rational cause for the haunting effects leads him first to a scientist (Bruce Altman) who specializes in ESP and other phenomena he calls natural as opposed to supernatural. When this doesn’t quite yield results (and the movie essentially drops the ball on this guy), Bryan turns instead to a psychic named Cassie (Zoë Saldana), who shudders and grimaces and offers soulful emotional support when Bryan is overcome. She’s of less use than she might have been, though she does recognize — as you have already, long before she shows up — that “The house talks, but only to you.” Bryan here begins to lose the boundaries he’s tried to hard to keep in place, between him and the house. Or, he says, “I’m talking to myself.”

Inane as any other insight offered up in The Skeptic, at least it acknowledges the fundamental metaphor of every haunted house movie ever made. And now, we can all go home.

RATING 3 / 10