"There's nothing worse than a writer who doesn't have anything to say," drones Harry Barber at the beginning of *Palmetto*. Harry just hasn't seen this movie yet. While *Palmetto* doesn't really have anything new to say, it goes on at great, tedious length in telling the tale of how Barber is double-, triple- and quadruple-crossed by a pair of luscious vixens in the steamy seaside town of Palmetto, Florida.
Harry (Woody Harrelson) is an ex con and ex-journalist, fresh out of prison after spending two years in the clink on trumped-up charges. Harry looks for a job by hanging out in a bar, proving that he is something of a low-watt bulb. T'is in that bar that Harry meets Rhea Malroux (Elisabeth Shue), vampy trophy wife of a local millionaire. Rhea squeezes into a dress like a sausage in a casing, but her teenage stepdaughter Odette (Chloe Sevigny) is less subtle, and Harry falls like a rotten apple for both scantily clad, overripe chippies. Rhea and Odette, for their parts, delight in the wriggly exercise of their feminine wiles, and sucker Harry into a scheme that the ex con, embittered by his time in prison, is just stupid and bilious enough to fall for. The devious plan cooked up by the Malroux women is a feigned kidnapping designed to coax a half mil out of miserly old Malroux. In exchange for ten percent, Harry acts as the beard and bag man in their scheme. Just how dumb is Harry to fall for this? He's so dumb that he takes a job as the local prosecutor's press liaison on the same kidnapping case.
It isn't long before everything starts to go wrong, and Harry is driving around with a body in the trunk of his girlfriend's car. The girlfriend Nina (Gina Gershon) gets suspicious, the cops get suspicious -- in fact, everyone except Harry gets suspicious. Several plot twists later, Harry is still as stupid and unenlightened as a sack of hammers, and *Palmetto* has turned into a messy self-parody, a desperate neo-noir in which chatty villains blather endlessly, a churning tub of acid is the weapon of choice and Rhea's relentless, butt-waggling vamping starts to look like the most subtle thing this movie has going for it.
*Palmetto* certainly has atmosphere. The sweaty tropical air all but steams up the lens, and there are nifty close-ups of brown palmetto bugs and an abundance of noir elements: rain, typewriters, hard liquor, fedoras, broken men and the women who broke them, and, of course, shadowy rooms sliced by shafts of light. Director Volker Schlondorff certainly gets the look right, but the story spins out of control early on, forcing the actors to work ever so hard for so little result.
Based on James Hadley Chase's novel *Just Another Sucker*, *Palmetto* is tiresome and overworked, a sweat-soaked Southern noir melodrama stewing in pheremones. Nobody does anything predictable in *Palmetto*, but neither do they do anything remotely believable, thus blunting the element of surprise with the element of indifference. The climax of this overwrought escapade features a bizarrely brazen performance by Shue (mimicking Gloria Swanson in *Sunset Boulevard*) followed by a supremely corny ending. *Palmetto* is as enervating as a heat wave, and leaves one longing for a truly cool movie (like *Sunset Boulevard*) instead of this microwaved noir knock-off.