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Pound of Flesh (A Movie Review)

Updated: Oct 29, 2023


Starring Malcolm McDowell, Angus Macfadyen, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Timothy Bottoms, Taryn Southern, Whitney Able, Lilly McDowell, Bellamy Young, Ashley Wren Collins, Seán McCarthy and Dee Wallace.

Screenplay by Tamar Simon Hoffs.

Directed by Tamar Simon Hoffs.

Distributed by American World Pictures. 97 minutes. Not Rated.

Probably the biggest problem with Pound of Flesh – in a movie that has quite a few of them – is that the supposed criminal of the movie seems so much more reasonable, likable, and sane than the policeman on his trail.

Angus Macfadyen has done some good, interesting work as an actor before – for example on the sadly short-lived 2003 ABC series Miracles – but here he is just allowed to flounder in a morass of showy “dramatic” and “edgy” moments as the disgraced cop. It is a master class of method over-acting, this character is constantly impotently lashing out at nothing, speaking in an affected, mumbling manner and glowering for no other reason other than the fact that he supposes it would be… what? Menacing? Disorienting? Emotional? Dramatic?

It isn’t. Literally, I can’t think of a worse performance in a professional film this year. That is really saying something.

It’s a shame, because Malcolm McDowell does some fine work here as a popular Shakespeare professor at a local college who has a secret life pimping out his co-eds to local politicians and businessmen.

It’s an interesting, explosive (though not completely original) storyline, one that the film is able to harness about half of the time.

The thing is the filmmakers can’t seem to decide if they want to make a hip, edgy social parody, or a police procedural murder thriller. The two styles seem to do battle within the plot structure, giving the whole production a bit of a schizophrenic air. The pointedly humorous look at academia and sex trafficking work out much, much better than the thriller aspects – in fact, Pound of Flesh would have probably worked a lot better if it had jettisoned the murder subplot. There was certainly enough intriguing material here without it.

The film title comes from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice – a play discussed in the professor’s class. It was an unfair penalty that the money-lender Shylock insisted upon from a bankrupt man who defaulted on a loan. The film has its own take on what are fair and unfair punishments in modern life.

The movie was written and directed by Tamar Simon Hoffs – the mother of 80s rock star Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles. Simon Hoffs has been bouncing around Hollywood for decades, but her writing-directing career had previously mostly consisted of her 1987 wannabe star vehicle for her daughter, The Allnighter. (Not surprisingly, Susanna never acted again after the failure of that film, despite the fact that she is married to well-known director Jay Roach of Austin Powers and Meet the Parents fame – though she did have a cameo as one of the members of Austin Powers’ band.) Tamar Simon Hoffs also wrote a 70s b-movie called Lepke with Tony Curtis and has been involved in several shorts and indies over the years.

We are introduced to Professor Noah Melville (McDowell) in voiceover – in which he points out that sex is the one profession in which women are paid more than men, which is why men immediately made it illegal.

It’s a legitimate – if not exactly earth-shattering – point, so legit in fact that his character repeats it later in the film.

Melville appears to have a perfect life. He is smart, loves his job, is well liked, well off, influential, dotes on his beautiful (much younger) wife and daughter and appears to have tenure.

Even his sidelight as pimp appears to be somewhat altruistic. He isn’t in it for the money – his girls get “scholarships,” the guys get attention, and everyone enjoys free love. In his eyes, it’s a win-win situation. The girls love him – though he resists their teasing, because he is faithful to his wife. He has several powerful clients, including the dean of the college – played by 70s movie star Timothy Bottoms of Paper Chase fame, who frankly gives Macfadyen a run for his money in the over-acting sweepstakes here. In fact, only Melville’s immediate superior – a still bitter apparent former lover played by Dee Wallace of ET and Cujo – has anything bad to say about Melville at all.

The movie opens on a somewhat explicit lovemaking scene in which a young woman shares a bed with a man (who conveniently has a blanket over his head the whole time) and a shotgun – a bit of sex play that goes terribly awry and ends with her lying dead on the floor.

The case falls to Det. Kelly (Macfadyen), who has recently been disgraced due to his alcoholism and his new partner Beck (Elizabeth Rodriguez).

Det. Kelly gets an instant hate-on for Prof. Melville, because… well we never know for sure. Because Melville is well liked by his students? Because he made a pithy joke at Kelly’s expense? Because he revels in the earthly pleasures that the recovering alcoholic detective has to avoid? Whatever the reason, Kelly becomes determined to prove that Melville had something to do with the killing, even though there is absolutely no evidence to support that assumption.

The police here several times make huge leaps of logic in their detective work… all of which oddly turn out to be correct. This seems like sloppy screenwriting, though it would be interesting to find out how many explanatory scenes ended up on the cutting room floor when this eventually gets a DVD release. Still, Tamar Simon Hoffs has no one to blame but herself; she is writer, director, and producer here.

Thus begins a war of wits between the suave, charming classics professor and the glowering, bitter cop. Of course, it would be a more interesting war of wits if Det. Kelly didn’t appear so consistently witless.

That said, when Pound of Flesh focuses on its central conceit – whether the professor is playing with fire by trying to take his beliefs in “free love” to an extreme and whether he deserves to be destroyed for his somewhat naïve utopian ideals – it is rather consistently interesting social commentary.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2010 All rights reserved. Posted: November 27, 2010.

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