Alex (Rob Lowe) is urging his new pal Michael (James Spader) to vitalize a boring yuppie life. At the office, Michael is stepped on by an ambitious colleague. At home, he's dominated by a rich fiancée. Alex introduces him to a hot number (Lisa Zane), then videotapes their sex play. "You make funny faces when you come," Alex tells Michael after reviewing the tape.
In light of the controversy surrounding the infamous home video that Lowe shot with two young women at a Georgia hotel during the 1988 Democratic convention, his decision to take this role seems imprudent, to say the least. But Lowe had committed to the film about four months before the scandal broke. The show must go on and all that. Besides, the movie has its own problems.
To be fair, Bad Influence will do in a pinch if you're starved for intrigue. For a while, it's nasty fun watching Michael sink into depravity. Erotic and spine tingling, this thriller has undeniable allure. But Bad Influence lacks daring, moral ambiguity and the pleasures of the unexpected, the elements that might give it distinction.
David Koepp's screenplay is an uncredited rehash of the 1951 Hitchcock gem Strangers on a Train -- Koepp obviously knows what's worth ripping off. But Koepp is no Raymond Chandler, who collaborated on the original version. And director Curtis Hanson is certainly no Hitchcock, though he aped the master before with better results in The Bedroom Window (1987). Here Hanson commits the cardinal sin in goose pimplers: He doesn't build the suspense. Bad Influence gets more predictable as it goes along.
Lowe is also standing in a daunting shadow. In Strangers, Robert Walker gave a classic performance as the charming psychopath who persuades a socialite (Farley Granger) to commit a murder. Lowe huffs and puffs, but he's not in Walker's league. He's better when Alex is showing Michael the seductiveness of the dark side. It's his efforts to suggest murderous rage that fall flat.
Spader fares much better. An actor with happier video associations than Lowe's -- he won the Best Actor Award at Cannes last year for sex, lies, and videotape -- Spader finds humor, depth and hidden strength in this nerd who lets his infatuation with evil go too far. It's a finely shaded performance. Spader almost tricks us into believing that this shallow entertainment means something. Almost.