"Men don't get their sex, they get wacky," explains matronly Dierdre (Barbara Bain) to her numb son, Alex (William H. Macy), guilelessly attempting to steer him back into the arms and legs of his confused wife, Martha (Tracey Ullman). Unfortunately for all concerned, however, Alex's problem is deeper, rooted in the training his father Michael (Donald Sutherland) has forced upon him since childhood. While Alex maintains a front as a mail-order merchant of "lawn ornaments, kitschy gewgaws, and sexual aids," he also functions within "the family business" as a hit man, and not even his hyperactive but observant young son Sammy (David Dorfman) knows that Daddy kills for a living.
Since Alex himself feels like a dead man, desperate to abandon his father's field, he decides to enlist the help of a peculiarly moralistic therapist (John Ritter, reprising his mannerisms from Sling Blade) to help him feel human again. In the waiting room, however, he meets his true emotional salvation in the form of chirpy and coyly sleazy Sarah (Neve Campbell), who's seeing a different therapist for no particular reason. Since she can't find her butt with both hands, and he'd be delighted to assist her, they're a perfect match, at least in theory. While she prefers to bed anything the cat drags in, she also finds great beauty in Alex's sad eyes. Meanwhile, in keeping with her astute perceptions, he wishes to bury his pathetic middle-aged pain in her, then go back to his family. Moreover, unlike some cinematic flings, Sarah's rules are simple: "She never finds out, and we never fall in love." Easy adultery, right?
Everyone in Panic seems to get comfortable with their roles as the movie unspools, but their challenge is a significant one, since, for better or worse, the characters never seem able to forge any sort of satisfying connection with each other. As the smog of L.A. affords the film free diffusion and hazy-headedness, these fine actors seem to be locked in some bizarre and ethereal form of talent showcase. Or possibly showdown. Profoundly alienated and forced to loiter interminably in the director's clinical frames, the cast seem game to engage one another in a competition of technique -- i.e., who can be the coldest and weirdest?
Considering that Bromell has written for great television like Northern Exposure, what's most surprising is that Panic moves with all the zip and zest of an ice floe. He not only proves that time is an illusion -- magically transforming 88 minutes into a few weeks -- he also wears down one's patience for these people within each scene. He reduces them to pieces on a game board, each with a single function to perform, and no more. Incapable of complex human syntax (except for Sarah, who talks fast), they each move toward their predetermined destiny, one languid, nonpanicked step at a time.
Where the movie shines, however, is in its in-between moments, usually in asides that have no immediate bearing on the plot. Macy and Ullman reflect on their first date while buying their son a bicycle, and their shared memory of watching Running Scared feels as real as Sammy's rampant materialism. For his part, young Dorfman manages a reasonably credible performance ("Does Beck eat breakfast?"), despite the child's obvious inclination to cut loose with mischief and the director's dubious choice to bathe him in bathos.
In the movie's best scene by far, Bromell gets all his elements to jell, and the result is impressive. Michael has already proven himself a mean and disturbingly funny old salt, and when he attempts to imprint Sammy with manly values, all familial hell breaks loose. With most of the cast called to the table, we catch a scary glimpse of neuroses exploding in a moving and very unfunny manner.