With Hannibal, the whole serial-killer phenomenon--our repulsive attraction for these ultimate outsiders--slips into its late-decadent phase. For all its flayed flesh, The Silence of the Lambs was grounded in reality, a police procedural that both horrified and fascinated us but also left us sad. Hannibal leaves us (me, anyway) feeling nothing except a vague sense that it's okay to kill people if 1) they deserve it and/or 2) they're the missing ingredient in our you-are-what-you-eat fantasy life. Between Gladiator and Hannibal, director Ridley Scott has served up quite a smorgasbord this year, but--and I promise to keep the food metaphors to a minimum--Gladiator was a full meal whereas Hannibal is a silver platter heaped with hors d'oeuvres. Ideally, there wouldn't be any sequels, only multipart movies that were conceived that way. Thomas Harris didn't start on the Hannibal novel until the Silence movie had been embraced by the entire world, and he must have asked himself, "Where do I go from here?" The answer, as so often happens when an author runs out of inspiration, was "over the top." Hannibal the novel is a campy piece of culinary Grand Guignol that only the Iron Chef could truly love. And Hannibal the Cannibal, who seemed so monstrously evil in Silence, has become our field guide to the far reaches of epicurean delight. (Sautéed brain, anyone?) So, was Harris rubbing our faces in it or merely slaking our thirst for blood? You be the judge. For the movie version, Scott has altered the ending that would have had Hannibal and Clarice satisfying their deep hunger for each other. Otherwise, he's turned down the lights, lit some candles, poured a couple of glasses of ruby-red wine and tried to put over one of the sickest love stories in the history of mainstream film. Perhaps wisely, the script keeps its two protagonists apart for most of the movie, although it was their little game of cat-and-mouse that lifted the original above the average horror flick. Instead, we're introduced to Gary Oldman's Mason Verger, a former patient/victim of Hannibal's who is so freaky-deaky--he's missing most of his face, for one thing--that he makes Hannibal look like a Boy Scout, which is undoubtedly the point. Frightfully rich, Verger has cooked up a revenge fantasy involving wild boars, but first he has to locate the guest of honor. That's where Clarice, now played by Julianne Moore (so that's where she is when we need her), comes in. Ten years after bringing Buffalo Bill to justice, Clarice is still bumping her head against the FBI's glass ceiling. Meanwhile, there are stirrings in Florence, Italy. Could that debonair gentleman who's passing himself off as a Renaissance librarian be the long-lost Hannibal Lecter? Clarice gets put back on the case, but not soon enough to save an Italian police detective (Giancarlo Giannini) who thinks he can catch Lecter all by himself. Turns out he lacks intestinal fortitude, and I know that because we get a good look at his intestines.
In some weird way that I can't entirely defend, Hannibal is always watchable, even during the last way-over-the-top scene, when Lecter is picking the brain of a Justice Department baddie played by Ray Liotta. That Oldman's Verger never has a big confrontation scene with Lecter is final proof that Hannibal doesn't care that much for traditional plotting. It's a mood piece, the mood being quite somber when the movie's not turning into a giggle-fest. As Clarice, Moore is just as effective as Jodie Foster was, but she's given much, much less to do. And Anthony Hopkins? He's taken the edge off a character who once seemed beyond the fringe. Ironically, it was what Silence showed us about serial killers' entrée into society that makes Hannibal such a bland dessert.