Movie Review: Head Above Water (1996)

Looking for a Billy Zane noir movie that I couldn’t remember the name of, I stumbled upon this lost mid 1990s b-movie. I’d be lying if I said I’ve ever even heard of the title. There are a lot of great things that stand out in this movie, from the screenplay to the direction to the performances by all the actors to the cinematography and even to the soundtrack at some times. Cameron Diaz and Billy Zane have clear a chemistry and being so young and vibrant, they are a treat to watch interact on the screen. What’s great about the screenplay is that it moves quickly without feeling rushed and as a viewer I feel entertained and enthralled even before anything big happens 18 minutes into the film. And then it turns into a whole new film altogether.

Substance is lost when it comes to the aftermath of the discovery of Billy Zane’s character Kent by Harvey Keitel’s character George. The story doesn’t move as fast as I would like at this point and is a little redundant albeit entertaining for a good 30 minutes or so while the characters struggle with making the choice to either be honest but ostracized by the media or being dishonest and safe in the privacy of their lives while committing a serious crime. If the movie had explored this idea more thoroughly, philosophically and darkly, it would have continued into what it started out to be. But it soon moves away from the creepiness and thrill of the desperation that overcomes one of the characters and brings out a cold-blooded side with a stark intent on covering everything up and into a campy dark comedy starring Cameron Diaz (at least this was before she got big), and I have to say her performance turns to utter crap by the end of the movie.

While this movie is charming and entertaining overall, what bothers me about it is probably the same issue that most critics would have: there are times when it is very serious and times when it’s extremely campy. The musical score is probably mostly to blame for this, but it could really just be that the producers were looking to make something accessible by too many markets instead of just sticking to one. I can imagine the script originally being a thriller and being amalgamated into what it became. Some examples of this are the beginning being a very serious and drama-oriented mood which prepares the viewer for a murder mystery, then turns into a would-be black comedy with no real jokes for the rest of the movie, studded with moments of a classic horror film format. Again, it’s difficult to fit this movie into a specific genre and that makes it difficult to swallow as a viewer. The best movies, the ones that have won the awards for best picture usually, are the movies that don’t fail on this account. Even if you were to make a movie that is cross-genre and/or unique in terms of genre-fitting, it should still carry through from beginning to end in some cohesive format. Without it, as a viewer, I feel cheated or tricked into watching something that I wasn’t truly interested in watching from the beginning.