How do you give a bland actor who looks like a Rodeo Drive mannequin some character? Easy: Cast him as a psychopathic sleazeball. Richard Gere has had a comeback of sorts playing a vicious, taunting cutthroat in Internal Affairs, and now Rob Lowe makes his bid to enter the Kink Hall of Fame in the smart and satisfyingly nasty new thriller Bad Influence.
It's no accident these former ciphers are enjoying second lives playing sickos. We're coming off a decade of surface glitz an era in which people have learned to manipulate their personalities like commodities and we don't know whom to trust anymore. For Lowe, this is good news indeed. He was never a terrible actor, but the very qualities that once made him so unexciting as a leading man his teenybop prettiness, his smiling, liquid-eyed passivity can now seem threateningly vague and ambiguous when he's cast as a charming psychopath.
In Bad Influence, his Alex is a variation on the poster-boy hustler he played in the 1988 thriller Masquerade. Impeccably coiffed and tanned, Alex is one of those mysterioso southern California drifters who conduct their entire lives as professional seducers. When Lowe, as Alex, flashes his dazzling, come-hither smile (look closely it's a dead ringer for Michael Jackson's), he's saying, ''Relax, and I'll show you a good time.'' But scratch the beach bum and you'll find a terrifying manipulator. Alex prides himself on his ruthlessness. In a strange way, it's his mark of character proof that he's not the Jacuzzi-brained doofus of a thousand California jokes. Alex lives for pleasure and takes no prisoners.
The movie is about the perverse, teasingly fraternal, and finally destructive bond he forms with Michael (James Spader), a marketing analyst in his late 20s. Michael is good at what he does, yet he's too simpering and honest to compete with his screw-your-buddy colleagues. Instead, he insulates himself behind the accessories of yuppiedom. His fabulous apartment is stocked with the latest fads and techno-gizmos like a video camera, none of which he has time to enjoy. In addition, he's all set to marry one of his coworkers, a fashionable, rich WASP horror show who already has her first pregnancy scheduled. It's no wonder he has an ulcer.
Michael is in need of a savior, and he finds one in Alex, who rescues him from a barroom brawl and then proceeds to win his trust by getting Michael to throw his ethics out the window and out-scheme a loutish rival. It works. Michael feels reborn exhilarated by his sudden power. He starts calling himself ''Mick'' and going along with whatever his new friend does.
He's introduced to swingers' clubs, where he meets a different breed of companion tough, brazen women who like their sex wild and couldn't care less about attachment. He goes on deranged joyrides and ends up a willful (if drunken) participant in random crimes. Yet all the while, he knows something's very wrong.
Alex isn't just slick and amoral. He's identityless, an ominous blank who changes his name (and accent) at will. Lying is his fetish; he does it to get things, and for the sheer fun of it. And so you can never be sure where he stands. He's a leech who leaves no traces, and when Michael tries to cut him out of his life, the leech turns on him.
Like Curtis Hanson's previous film, The Bedroom Window (1987), Bad Influence is derived from a lot of other pictures in this case, Mike's Murder, Blue Velvet, Something Wild, and those Hitchcock films (notably Strangers on a Train) in which the hero is bound to a dark twin who acts out his repressed impulses. Hanson has a lot of craftsmanship, and some wit too. What he lacks is Hitchcock's genius for narrative, for turning the plot into a roller-coaster projection of his hero's fears and desires. Here, you're often aware you're watching a booby-trapped story line (especially when Alex starts popping up magically to torment Michael).
Still, the movie is consistently entertaining; it sucks you in. James Spader is a little too recessive, yet he lends the action a core of wormy anxiety. And Hanson establishes a ripe sense of temptation. In Bad Influence, the sinful undercurrents aren't just cheap thrills. They're luridly topical they're meant to subvert a world in which people have begun to organize their erotic lives by Filofax. When Alex stages a practical joke in an attempt to torpedo Michael's wedding plans, it's a queasy, almost pornographic moment so shocking it's funny. That the scene revolves around Rob Lowe's offscreen home-video hobby only enhances its kinkiness. In Bad Influence, life does more than imitate art it lends art a weird credibility. B+