Easily the most creepy (and, by far, most interesting) thing about Along Came a Spider, yet another adaptation of one of James Patterson's alleged mystery novels featuring beleaguered Detective Alex Cross, is how much co-star Monica Potter looks, sounds and acts like Julia Roberts. Granted, it's hardly a startling revelation to anyone who's seen the actress' earlier films -- among them Heaven or Vegas (with Richard Grieco), Patch Adams (which came with a surgeon general's warning) and this year's Head Over Heels (which played like a lobotomized, horny Rear Window) -- but what was once a distraction has become the source of much intrigue. After about 15 minutes of this deadly dull thriller, you might even begin to wonder if she's not in fact the product of a genetic experiment perpetrated by Jeffrey Katzenberg, Sherry Lansing and Barry Diller, who, according to the trades, have combined forces to clone Hollywood's biggest stars, give them new names and hire them at cut-rate prices. How else do you explain Skeet Ulrich and Leelee Sobieski (who's not Helen Hunt -- no, really)? They're the goys from Brazil.
Along Came a Spider is a sequel to the fairly successful 1997 Kiss the Girls, and it allows Potter the chance to play second fiddle to the maestro, Morgan Freeman. It's a bona fide hit, at least until people actually see it; then, it's a short trip from theaters to pay-per-view. But give the filmmakers credit: Director Lee Tamahori (Mulholland Falls) and first-time writer Marc Moss have strayed little from their predecessor, meaning they, too, have made a thriller that will cause you to jump out of your seat ... and into the nearest bed. Not only is it tedious and insipid -- it plays more like an episode of Profiler, screened in slow motion -- but its very existence hinges on a plot point so ludicrous, unexpected and ill conceived the movie probably makes sense if you see only the last eight minutes. (The book likely inspired the climactic twist, but because Patterson is to writing what Frank Sinatra was to feminism, you're on your own.)
Ostensibly, it's a film about redemption and betrayal, but that gives the movie more credit than it gives itself. In the opening moments, Cross (played by Freeman with all the fervor of a sleepwalker on his way to the kitchen at 2 a.m.) watches his partner plunge to her death in a special-effects sequence that looks to have been filmed during a tour of Universal Studios (Anna Nicole Smith's chest comes across as more authentic). Cross broods for a few months, killing time by building miniature ships inside bottles, until he's rustled out of hibernation by a nut named Gary Soneji (Michael Wincott), who's kidnapped the daughter of a senator by posing as a teacher (apparently, the fake beard and wig Wincott wears during the opening scenes are obvious only to every member of the audience, because no one else in school seems to notice). The girl, Megan Rose (Mika Boorem), was snatched from her plush private-school digs from beneath the nose of Secret Service agent Jezzie Flannigan (Potter), who blames herself ... just as Cross blames himself for his partner's death! They're meant for each other -- two damaged cops in search of a victim and a little inner peace. "Forgiving yourself is the one thing a person cannot do," Cross tells his wife; Freeman often speaks as though he's reading out of a fortune cookie.
Cross figures Soneji's out to make a name for himself; Megan's his Lindbergh baby, his ticket to the history books (including a few penned by Cross, a famous profiler), immortality and infamy. But it soon becomes apparent to Cross and Flannigan, about 30 minutes after it becomes apparent to the audience, that Soneji might not be after Megan. She's more likely being used as the bait: Soneji's not after the daughter of some meaningless senator (played by Michael Moriarty, coasting on his A&E residuals) and his wife (a blink-and-you'll-miss-her Penelope Ann Miller); he's using her as bait to lure out of his cushy castle Megan's classmate, the son of the Russian president, no less. This, incidentally, isn't even the twist; you could see this plot point coming from a mile away on a dark road, even with its headlights off. Maybe because it's in the trailer.
The film's final act is constructed on one tenuous bit of luck after the next, all building toward so shrugging a climax that Freeman, by film's end, looks relieved the check cleared. Tamahori and Moss seem to think that shocking an audience with nonsense -- something to do with a surveillance camera, a Web site, a ransom of diamonds, an antique shotgun and a poker game (which, come to think of it, sound like clues on $64,000 Pyramid) -- is satisfying, when in truth it's merely manipulative and condescending. For an audience to be thrilled, we must know the rules of the game; we're supposed to be able to play along. But Cross is merely making it up as he goes, lucking into the solution rather than actually solving the puzzle. He's the man who shoots blindly into the dark and somehow hits his target; the result is a climax with the force of a yawn. The finale is so ridiculous that the audience at a recent promotional screening was giggling in disbelief; it was thrilled only that the movie had come to an end.