A flashbacking film noir adapted from 2010's foreign-language Oscar winner, Secret in Their Eyes is notable for its top-tier cast - Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, and Chiwetel Ejiofor are the leads - and for its utter lack of credulity and good sense.
Set in Los Angeles, in 2002 and again in 2015, this putative thriller, directed and written by Billy Ray (whose other credit this week is the screenplay for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2), turns on the rape and murder of a young woman. The body, soaked in bleach to erase evidence, is found in a Dumpster next to a mosque being watched over by the feds. It is the shaky, suspicious days after 9/11, and one of Ray's augmentations of the original Argentine mystery is to muck things up with Patriot Act surveillance, paranoia, and intrigue.
The victim, alas, happens to be the bright-eyed teenage daughter of Roberts' Jesse Cobb, a district attorney's investigator. She and Ejiofor's Ray Kasten, an FBI agent, are there when the corpse is discovered. There is a suspect (Joe Cole), and there is Agent Kasten's certainty that he is the man, but because he's a federal witness planted at the mosque where a terror cell is believed to operate, he's allowed to go free.
Kasten leaves the bureau to become a security consultant. Cobb continues at the D.A.'s Office, but the loss of her daughter has turned her pale, worried, and worn. (This may be Roberts' least glammy role ever.)
As for Kidman, she's Claire Sloane, deputy D.A. back when the body was found, and running things now, 13 years later, when Kasten walks in with a prison mug shot he thinks is the perp's. Claire and Ray have some history together - they got their ID cards on the same day, and they've had a hankering for each other ever since.
She's Harvard Law, he's City College, but, boy, do they like each other - you can tell by the yearning regret in his eyes, and by Claire's strategically unbuttoned blouse and the way she sashays across a room. Kidman's (and the director's) idea of playing things seductively, provocatively, borders on Russ Meyer camp. (In fact, I think Kidman's character was once a counselor at that camp.)
The pair's mutual attraction is cause for unintentional laughs; more guffaws are forthcoming when director Ray stages two sprawling chase scenes - at the crowded Santa Anita racetrack and again at Dodger Stadium. The notion that a suspect can be tracked down, not once but twice, then spotted amid the vast throngs of a sporting event - well, it's optimistic, to say the least.
The mood that Secret in Their Eyes is going for, however, is anything but rosy. As the story works its way toward its twisty climax - an ending that hews closely to the one in Juan Jose Campanella's original, El Secreto de Sus Ojos - things get grim, indeed.
Too bad the audience can still be heard snickering merrily away.
Directed by Billy Ray. With Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, and Julia Roberts. Distributed by
Running time: 1 hour, 51 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (profanity, violence, adult themes).