During career low points, superstar actors often try and reinvent their careers by playing against type, usually villains, sex fiends or both. This tactic doesn’t always work. Remember last year, Robin Williams took on a string of evil and unfunny roles in films like “Insomnia,” “Death to Smoochy” and “One Hour Photo.” These characters, however unsuccessful, stood apart from his earlier roles, jump-starting new interest in his work. Williams tried to show his audience he could change, morphing from a funny chameleon into a deranged killer and back again.
Now in the fall of 2003, Meg Ryan has set aside her talent for playing adorable and sensitive romantics for a racy and completely unsympathetic role in Jane Campion’s new thriller “In the Cut.” Ryan plays Frannie Avery, a New York City schoolteacher desperately passionate about poetry, whose safety comes under distress when a serial killer begins stalking her neighborhood. Detective Malloy (Mark Ruffalo) investigates (in and out of bed) and is portrayed as a man spends his days staring blankly at crime scenes and his nights out carousing through the Big Apple’s bars and dimly lit streets.

“In the Cut” moves at a slow, monotonous pace so that each scene is overrun with roving camera angles and out-of-place color palettes, as if the director is trying to closely adhere to the thriller conventions. The killer strikes. Frannie gets scared and runs to Malloy’s side. They go to bed. Boring stuff indeed, except for one part: Meg Ryan shows her breasts! Not only does she get naked, but the camera follows intently through scene after scene as Frannie and Malloy do the raunchy monkey dance, talking dirty the whole time. So is this Meg Ryan reinventing herself?

Well, not exactly. Ryan’s Frannie Avery wallows in self-pity and latches on to any aggressive piece of meat willing to mentally abuse her. She’s a victim from the start, a character suffocating from weakness. The nude scenes come off as silly wet dreams, staged in a hazy fog, detaching any semblance of character development from the story. The role, originally intended for Nicole Kidman, lacks substance, motivation and most importantly, conviction.

It doesn’t help that “In the Cut” completely fails as a scary thriller or captivating noir piece. As more and more dead bodies start showing up, the dialogue turns from stale to terminal. Even more maddening, the style unleashes waves of pretension upon an audience hoping for a thriller with bite. Jane Campion abuses the hand-held camera, filming New York City by focusing on scummy, red light districts and dark alleys. Campion, who usually has a brilliant sense of landscape (see “The Piano” and “Holy Smoke”), blurs each image in and out of focus, creating a world so insecure the characters and settings become completely unbelievable.

Nudity or not, “In the Cut” ranks with this year’s worst films, representing nothing but a series of high-gloss surface interactions wasting talent left and right. Artsweek hopes Ryan will learn her lesson and choose a project worth both her acting chops and physical features. “In the Cut” doesn’t come close to complementing either, producing instead a bland and unrewarding nightmare void of any tension or value.