"CROCODILES HAVE BEEN MORE deified than Jesus," says paleontologist Bridget Fonda to Fish and Game Warden Bill Pullman and eccentric millionaire Oliver Platt. Uh huh.

I am a shmuck who will always pay to watch crap in which a Big Thing Runs Amok: The Relic, Anaconda, Powertool, etc. In Lake Placid, the latest entry, I loved watching FX whiz Stan Winston's hefty crocodile chomp on cows, wildlife, and unsuspecting deputies, one of whom receives what may be the most hysterical decapitation since David Warner met that sheet of glass in The Omen. The beast even goes after a helicopter--twice! (This does my heart glad: it's been so long since Jaws 2.) If, like me, you are the kind of connoisseur whose spirit leaps at the thought of a movie featuring a giant crocodile, I can say this: Lake Placid is a movie featuring a giant crocodile. The film provides the basic food groups, but as an entire meal, it's somewhat undercooked.

Maestro Steve Miner--responsible for Friday the 13th parts 2 and 3-D (the one where the eyeball pops out of the guy's head!)--is historically incapable of generating all but the most basic suspense. Here, he drops people in the water, tosses in a few musical stingers, then stirs. Meanwhile, the screenplay by David E. Kelley sounds as though it were scribbled during a lunch break after the initial pitch session, and features the kind of absurd polarity between the sexes and casual sexism that I've come to expect from the man who has drugged the nation with Ally McBeal. Bridget Fonda is a woman, see, and you know how darn stubborn those fussy dames can be. Kelley would have us believe that because she's from New York and has half a brain, she's a bitch, though no match for the charms of a Fish and Game Warden.

The entire thing reeks of the worst by-the-numbers brand of '90s irony: Write something cardboard and shoddy, throw in some sarcasm and a few "comic" touches, then pass the whole thing off as some clever postmodern genre piece. Betty White, for chrissakes, stomps around yelling "Cocksuckers!" at the police (oh, my friends, I kid you not), and I'm not even going to tell you how she deals with the reptile. White's campy turn is the kind of crass, obvious joke that typifies Kelley's writing: It's too self-aware to be genuinely funny, even on its own meager terms. As a fast-food matinee, Lake Placid suffices for creature feature devotees, but trust me, you'll be hungry later.

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