In movie parody, there’s a line between silly and stupid that a comedy director crosses at his peril. Carl Reiner, who directed this heavy-handed sendup of every film-noir hit from Double Indemnity to Basic Instinct, leaps over that line with a confidence as brave as it is misplaced. Small jokes are buried under elaborate setups. Sight gags are repeated to the point of exhaustion — a woman’s shoe steps in gum, then toilet paper, then . . . you get the point. Most painful of all, serious actors strain to be funny.
Armand Assante stars as Ned Ravine, a cop-lawyer who defends the perps he collars. But he’s not too bright. Ravine hardly notices that his adulterous wife, Lana (Kate Nelligan), wants to kill him or that his sex-crazed client, Lola (Sean Young), is harboring a fatal attraction. Only his sweet secretary, Laura (Sherilyn Fenn), stands between Ravine and his next pratfall.
You feel embarrassed for all the actors, especially Assante, who is seen dancing in a business suit and red high heels. It’s a burlesque of a Julia Roberts musical interlude in Sleeping With the Enemy. Reiner forgets that the Roberts scene was already funny for taking itself so seriously. He also forgets that you can’t just cram a comedy with movie references; you need a spark to give them life. Fatal Instinct is a stiff.