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the general's daughter will probably be the cleverest stupid film we'll see this year -- or perhaps the stupidest clever film .
it's confusing to a critic when so much knuckleheaded plotting and ostentatious direction shares the screen with so much snappy dialogue and crisp character interaction .
that , however , is what happens when legendary screenwriter william goldman takes a pass at an otherwise brutally predictable conspiracy thriller .
the punched-up punch lines are ever on the verge of convincing you the general's daughter has a brain in its head , even as the remaining 75% of the narrative punches you in the face with its lack of common sense .
our hero is warrant officer paul brenner , a brash investigator for the u . s . army's criminal investigation division .
his latest case is the murder of captain elisabeth campbell ( leslie stefanson ) at a georgia base , the victim found tied to the ground after an apparent sexual assault and strangulation .
complicating the case is the fact that capt . campbell is the daughter of general joe campbell ( james cromwell ) , a war hero and potential vice-presidential nominee .
general campbell wants to keep the case out of the press , which gives brenner only the 36 hours before the fbi steps in .
teamed with rape investigator sarah sunhill ( madeleine stowe ) -- who , coincidentally enough , once had a romantic relationship with brenner -- brenner begins uncovering dark secrets from the late captain's past that make the case ever more sordid .
if only the sordidness were the worst of the general's daughter's problems .
scenes of sexual degredation do linger much longer than necessary , their negligible dramatic value overwhelmed by filtered-light sleaze .
director simon west likely thinks he's covered himself by juxtaposing these images of violence with sweet flowers , but all he does is prove himself dependent on visual cliches , which is the film's fatal flaw .
it's a trend he continues for two hours , taking the story's few virtues and slapping a coat of moron-proof obviousness over them .
characters who may ( wink wink ) turn out to be villains are photographed in ominous shadow ; cutaway inserts of the captain campbell's still-living face after the corpse is uncovered insure against five-minute attention spans .
west just can't help himself from overdirecting every minute of the general's daughter .
he even turns a scene of footage shown on cnn into an excuse for slow-fade edits .
bubbling up from this overcooked stew are enough tasty lines to distract you from its smell .
the slickest scene finds brenner squaring off with captain campbell's mentor , a psychological warfare expert named moore ( james woods ) .
there's something invigorating about watching two smart actors playing smart characters firing honesty at one another .
indeed , travolta gets to sink his teeth into dozens of choice lines based on his delight at provoking authority figures ( to the local sheriff of the georgia county : " shouldn't you be out night-sticking the colored folk ? " ) .
even the lame device of brenner and sunhill's sexual history provides a few winning zingers .
goldman's dialogue can serve up a bigger laugh than you'll find in most so-called comedies .
dialogue , unfortunately , just isn't enough to make a quality script .
it's difficult to take a movie about a criminal investigation seriously when the investigators are both too stupid to solve it sooner ( an idiotic inability to recognize the nature of the crime scene ) and too lucky for it to last any longer ( not one but two occasions where brenner catches a vital piece of evidence out of the corner of his eye ) .
by the time the general's daughter wanders towards its over-wrought , psycho-in-the-rain finale , west's heavy hand has obliterated most of what made the film occasionally fun .
it's silly and pretentious film-making , but at least it provides a giggle or five .
goldman should tear the 15 decent pages out of this script and turn them into a stand-up routine .