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In L.A. Confidential, there's something rotten in la-la land.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

SEPTEMBER 29, 1997:  I was talking recently to a friend who moved to Los Angeles after spending several years living the city mouse life in New York. Reflecting on his new home, he said it wasn't such a bad place, "as long as you can accept that everybody spends a lot of time worrying about how they look, and looking to see how you look. In Manhattan, people are always trying to show off their brains. In L.A., they show off their looks."

Of course, the corollary to the smog city's obsession with appearance is that nothing is really what it looks like. Southern California, home of Hollywood, Disneyland, and Ronald Reagan, is our national capital of illusion. Artifice is its stock in trade and its main export. The faces, busts, and buttocks you see walking down the street are no more real than Luke Skywalker's land-speeder or a film producer's promise to read your screenplay. Nobody means what they say and everybody knows it, which absolves anybody of ever having to show the face behind the mask. It's a culture that thrives on surfaces because it's afraid of what might be underneath.

The new thriller L.A. Confidential plays off that dark superficiality, off the difference between the way things seem and the way they really are. Set in 1950s Hollywood, it's a clever detective yarn about celebrity, duplicity, and the importance of appearances. And if it ultimately seems a little hollow, that's at least in keeping with its theme.

The movie, adapted from James Ellroy's novel by director Curtis Hanson, is unusual in a lot of ways, not least of which is its refusal to give us a "good guy." Instead, we get three intriguing but deeply flawed protagonists, all of them detectives with the Los Angeles Police Department. First, there's Jack (Kevin Spacey), a smug sergeant who makes his name busting movie stars for sex and drug offenses, most of which he's tipped to by tabloid editor Sid Hudgeons (Danny DeVito). Jack's high profile has landed him a job he enjoys more than any beat-pounding police work—technical adviser to a police drama called Badge of Honor (a deliberate mirror of the LAPD's real-life collaboration with Dragnet). Jack's the ultimate L.A. cop—he really is a policeman, but he'd rather play one on TV.

He's complemented in the narrative by two young officers who at first seem like polar opposites—the straight-arrow Exley (Guy Pearce) and the violent Bud (Russell Crowe). Exley's an apple-polishing do-gooder trying to fulfill the legacy of a father who was shot down in the line of police duty. Bud's a troubled loner with a penchant for roughing up wife-beaters.

The trio is thrown together when eight people, including Bud's ex-partner, are massacred in an all-night diner (the discovery of the bodies is one of the movie's many smartly rendered noir homages—it's Edward Hopper's Nighthawks come to a bad end). For reasons of their own, and independent of each other, all three cops start investigating the shootings, which turn out to have something to do with a high-stakes prostitution ring, a suitcase of missing heroin, and some dark secrets about the LAPD itself.

The sinister police department, in effect, serves as the movie's stand-in for all of Los Angeles. On the surface, it's all propriety and "just the facts" efficiency, a model of modern law enforcement for a model modern city. But from savage prisoner beatings (obvious shades of Rodney King) to the department's willingness to rewrite events to suit its own public relations purposes, this is an outfit where dubious ends are used to justify brutal means. Without overstating the point, the movie draws a clear line from its hawk-nosed, authoritarian police captain (James Cromwell, who's parlayed his endearing stint in Babe into a string of strong character roles) to the equally image- and power-obsessed Darryl Gates.

The department isn't the only thing that's not what it seems. There's Lynn (Kim Basinger, acting for a change), a call girl who works for a mysterious service that hawks hookers sculpted to look like movie stars (Lynn is supposed to be Veronica Lake, another noir namecheck). There's Ellis Lowe (Ron Rifkin), the district attorney, who talks up public morals and then slinks off to tryst with young men in seedy motels. And there are Jack, Exley, and Bud, who all turn out to be different than they first appear. About the only person in the movie who doesn't evolve before our eyes is DeVito, who attacks his sleazy role with ruthless glee.

The cast is terrific (especially Australian actors Pearce and Crowe, who hold their own with the fiendishly talented Spacey), and the dialogue and score are crisp in an intentionally pulpy way. The only problem with the film is a level of cool detachment throughout, which ends up making it seem like a merely good movie trying to be a great one. It's not so much that there aren't any really likable characters—it's that Hanson is so caught up in exposing the movie's many layers of deception that he doesn't bother to give it much of a heart. It all feels a little cold, which makes for an entertaining film that never quite becomes engrossing, a complex thriller that's easy to enjoy but hard to get passionate about. But then, they don't have passion in L.A., do they?

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