We return at last to the steady and certain decline of Alan J. Pakula, who went from intelligent producer of prestige dramas for adults in the 1960s, to director of fascinating character studies and brilliant thrillers in the 1970s, and one of the defining American filmmakers of that period, a privilege that he is never properly accorded. But almost like a switch had been flipped, the 1980s saw him flailing about, between character studies without compelling characters and thrillers that weren't thrilling. When the 1990s came, it was a battered, broken Pakula who directed the slick, shallowly enjoyable courtroom thriller Presumed Innocent, which kicked off the last and most dispiriting phase of his career yet: the part where he made horribly disposable, formulaic procedurals without any particular merit or intelligence.

It was his follow-up to Presumed Innocent that really showcased just how grim the future was to become, for while that film is at least decently entertaining, all the more if you have a particular attachment to Harrison Ford, 1992's Consenting Adults is both insipid and idiotic. It is not the director's worst film: Dream Lover holds that title with little risk of giving it up, and I'm perverse enough to think that the sacrosanct Sophie's Choice is still a lesser work, for not only is it equally mediocre and pointless, it manages to do those two things in service to a story pornishly exploiting the Holocaust.

Sophie's Choice is worth bringing up for another reason: the scenario of Consenting Adults pilfers from it heavily, and indeed I think it might very well be the least-original narrative in Pakula's career. Take the free-spirited, sexually open Bohemian couple upstairs and make them the next-door neighbors; mix in some "husband wrongly accused of murder, tries to clear himself through incredibly unlikely extra-legal means" from Presumed Innocent, along with the standard-issue wrong man hook that film already borrowed from The Parallax View, and make it as clear as possible that the movie desperately wishes to be an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, with a very studiously non-Hitchcockian aesthetic; frankly, without much of an aesthetic at all.

Specifically, Consenting Adults begins with the Parkers of South Carolina: Richard (Kevin Kline) writes television advertisement jingles, while Priscilla (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) is a housewife, taking care of their pre-teen daughter Lori (Kimberly McCullough, now a daytime TV star, who at the time looked uncannily like '30s/'40s child actress Virginia Weidler). They have a very nice, safe, routine suburban life, and if there's one thing that the movies have taught us, is that's nobody can be even vaguely happy living such a soulless existence. Which is why the Parkers must be saved by the Eddy Otis (Kevin Spacey), and his wife Kay (Rebecca Miller), a pair of thrill-seeking, devil-may-care free spirits, who like to have fun in all sorts of ways: Kay by pursuing a quixotic career as a blues singer, Eddy by faking neck injuries to scam the insurance company out of $25,000 to bail out his new neighbors from crushing debt, and both of them by flirting shamelessly with the Parkers, both of whom seem rather pleased by the attention.

If this were the 1970s, I suppose that Pakula and screenwriter Matthew Chapman and producer David Permut - check out those three filmographies and try to square 'em, I dare you - might have gone the simple, obvious route of ripping off Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, a nice and easy wife-swapping character drama. And that movie would have been a whole lot better than the Consenting Adults we got, because without doubt the first 30 minutes of the film are the best part, when it really is nothing else than watching as two liberated people help to liberate two other people. And naturally, the big S-E-X becomes part of that, and that could be where Pakula, operating in his rigorously psychoanalytic mode that made his little character pictures from the '70s such marvelous little gems, really had a chance to shine. A gentle but serious look at how two people deal with the moral ramifications of their newfound joie de vivre, that would indeed be to the director's strengths, especially with an ace cast like the one he put together here.

Sweet little Jesus boy, is that ever not the film that got made. 1992 was not, after all, 1972. It was smack dab in the middle of the great Age of the Erotic Thriller, and as any frequent habitué of the genre can tell you, the only thing great about erotic thrillers from that time period is that the vast majority of them didn't star Madonna. Moreover, the Alan J. Pakula of 1992 was very obviously a man who was just grateful to be directing movies, and whatever spark had once possessed him was long since gone, replaced by a servile Hollywood whore who was yes, thank you, very excited to make this erotic thriller. So when Eddy suggests to Richard that they should each creep into the other's bed one night, without telling their wives, what follows is not an angsty study of sexual mores but a murder mystery: because guess what, Kay shows up dead the following morning, and there's circumstantial evidence out the wazoo implicating Richard in her grisly murder.

I called the film both insipid and idiotic, and perhaps I have already begun to chip away at what makes it insipid. Bluntly put, this is a bog-standard piece of studio hackwork, almost completely indistinguishable from dozens of similar movies in any particulars of narrative or style - and this latter point is especially frustrating, as I have stubbornly clung throughout to my belief that Pakula is an unappreciated craftsman, capable of marshaling all the elements of cinema in distinctly unshowy ways (and this above all, I think, accounts for the continued lack of respect he gets in the pantheon of '70s greats), using camera and editing and especially sound in tiny but inescapable ways to pound home his themes and the feeling of his films. Well, wrap that up in a sack and drown it in the river right now: Consenting Adults has maybe ten or fewer shots that feel like they came from the mind of a man with any special facility for moviemaking, and hardly a single cut that does more than move the perspective about from one place to another in a chunky, functional way. Editor Sam O'Steen (who'd worked with the director once before, on The Sterile Cuckoo) is certainly capable of better things, as even a casual glance at his work proves (he cut Rosemary's Baby, for Christ's sake!), but we should probably expect no better from cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, a slack DP who would in later years perpetrate such flavorless works as Julie & Julia. I guess that a sufficiently eager partisan for the movie could argue that mere proficiency is good enough, when so many films a specifically ill-made; but I find that argument horrid to even contemplate, and hence I say it again: insipid! Insipid to excess!

As for the film's idiocy, well, that's a matter of its screenplay, and the second half, which contains one of the truly vast plot-holes in history. So it's going to be spoiler time. Now, my guess is that Chapman got himself in a spot of trouble: like all screenwriters, he wanted to show a perfect crime, and by God he did: Eddy killed his wife for a $1.5 million insurance take, and framed his hapless neighbor as the perfect patsy, and there was not a thing that could trip him up. So in comes the bone-headed reveal that Kay isn't dead. It was a prostitute who looked rather like Kay in the dim light that ended up with her brains splashed across the Otises' bed, and Kay is now hiding under the name "Olivia Kramer" in Georgia. This much can at least be tortuously worked out: she had to help Eddy with his alibi, so he splits the take with her, she gets to become a singer and he gets to have a huge pile of money to enjoy with the sexy Priscilla and her sweet daughter. But why leave her alive? and why just one state over? and why stay in touch with her? and why, dear God why have Richard ask the exact same question, "Why not kill her?" just to make sure the audience notices how absolutely none of this makes sense? And then, why, having come up with the flimsiest possible rationale for all of this (he has residual affection for her), does Chapman then squander even that by having Eddy kill Kay the very instant that she represents a threat to his security?

I don't like to think of myself as a story logic nazi by any means, but sometimes the very basic concept behind a narrative is so intensely flawed that you just have to cast it out and let it die in the wild, screaming like a newborn thrown to a pack of wolves. All the great art and craftsmanship in the world couldn't have saved Consenting Adults, and it has neither.

The one and only thing that it gives me to cling to, as one last hope that Pakula wasn't completely gone, is that the performances are solid. Not Miller and Mastrantonio; neither of them is given much at all to do, and Miller spends most of the film offscreen. But the Kevins, they are both in fine form: the always-underappreciated Kline far better than he was in Sophie's Choice as the blinking, uncomprehending dupe, and Spacey (though undone by a terrible hairpiece that reminds one of Jude Law in The Talented Mr. Ripley) is gleefully oily and evil in one of those barnburning little performances that snuck out before he became a damn superstar following The Usual Suspects.

But "two of the three lead actors are good" never saved any movie, and so I can say little in the way of Consenting Adults but this: it is a damnable shame that the director of some of the finest paranoia thrillers of all time should have been reduced to making such a trashy, joyless knock-off as this one. But all of us, I suppose, need to eat, and if this is how Pakula wanted to squander his name and reputation, let me not speak against the motives of a dead man.