Without a prayer

Movie: Bless the Child

Our Rating: 1.50

If it isn't in the book of Revelations, it ought to be: "Once in every generation, someone shall remake 'Rosemary's Baby.' And it shall not be good. And there shall be much wailing, and gnashing of teeth, and rending of garments."

On second thought, replace "every generation" with "every year." As if we hadn't suffered enough at the hands of last winter's (forgotten but not forgiven) "End of Days," here comes "Bless the Child," the latest clumsy pastiche of Biblical prophecy, troubled motherhood, Gothic special effects and shoot-'em-up action.

Things have changed a bit since Rosemary Woodhouse became the target of a Satanic conspiracy back in 1968. At the time, birth control, women's rights and the widely advertised death of God were the hot-button issues, and they all found horrific exaggeration in Rosemary's impregnation by the Devil -- an atrocity that was abetted by her own husband.

These days, single parenting is the cultural bugaboo, and it's into that precarious situation that New York City nurse Maggie O'Connor (Kim Basinger) is thrust when her junkie kid sister, Jenna (Angela Bettis), arrives on Maggie's doorstep bearing a 9-day-old daughter. Within minutes of their reunion, the irresponsible Jenna flees Maggie's apartment for points unknown, leaving the nurse to raise the newborn Cody as her own.

The next six years of their life together are glossed over in a handful of choppy scenes that exist merely to establish Cody's growing signs of autism. (The script hems and haws about the depth and nature of her affliction, perhaps because kid actor Holliston Coleman can manage no better replication of mental challenge than to occasionally rock back and forth as if she's listening to Mandy Moore on an invisible Walkman.)

Cody is a "special" child in more ways than one: She's gifted with extraordinary powers that enable her to shake up a snow globe using only her mind, restore a dying bird to full health and even, it's suggested, cure cancer. So it's no surprise that birth mother Jenna suddenly resurfaces in Maggie's life, accompanied by new husband Eric Stark (Rufus Sewell), a former child star who now leads a cultish alternative church called The New Dawn. Stark's backstory -- a clever amplification of the ignominy that seems to befall every grown-up TV tyke -- is as witty as "Bless the Child" gets, though it's largely cribbed from the oeuvre of writer/director/cartoonist Bruce Wagner ("Wild Palms," "I'm Losing You.")

Stark and Jenna wrest custody of Cody from Maggie via legal intimidation, psychological warfare and, finally, outright kidnapping. His wealth, Stark suggests, makes him a more fit parent than the cash-strapped Maggie. And what struggling single mom in the audience can't sympathize with that crisis?

To push the socioeconomic analysis any further, however, is to give "Bless the Child" more intellectual credit than it deserves. This is no masterpiece of metaphorical scare tactics, but a popcorn-movie standoff between the virtuous Maggie and Stark, who we soon learn is the manservant of dark forces. Though Maggie is a lapsed Catholic (just like Rosemary before her), she gradually realizes that demonic doings swirl around her. The first step in her spiritual reawakening: perusing a newspaper whose front page screams "FOURTH CHILD MURDERED." Director Chuck Russell ("The Mask," "Eraser") doesn't miss an opportunity to loudly broadcast his film's simplest points.

Christina Ricci show up as Cheri, another junkie with ties to New Dawn; her two measly scenes have her reciting stilted, explicatory monologues that reveal 95 percent of the film's plot. When there are no more beans for her to spill, she's quickly decapitated. It's a mercy killing.

Also wasted is Jimmy Smits, whose thankless role as John Travis -- an FBI agent and former seminary student -- leaves strong hints that the soul-searching query, "I gave up 'NYPD Blue' for this?" will soon be as central to his existence as it is to David Caruso's. And Basinger is simply awful, putting on a pious Mother Teresa face and keeping it in place throughout her character's supposed moments of love, fear, anger and steely determination. It's time to dispense with the fiction that Basinger is a good actress who's often trapped in lousy movies; as her work here proves, she's a mediocre talent whose performances are usually right in line with the lame-brained projects she chooses.

In adapting Cathy Cash Spellman's novel, screenwriters Tom Rickman, Clifford Green and Ellen Green break every good-faith rule of storytelling. When their already lax notions of continuity, motivation and plausibility won't rescue them from a particular narrative jam, they introduce benevolent strangers who arrive on the scene to lend Maggie a helping hand, then swiftly disappear. (If you don't recognize these luminously grinning folks as angels, you don't know your Della Reese.) Cheating of this sort -- "deus ex multiplex," perhaps? -- is the worst contempt a film can show its viewers. It's the final step in making "Bless the Child" a thriller only a mother could love.


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