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A 'Secret' You Can Keep

Big names can't prevent thriller from imploding

(Video) 'Secret in Their Eyes' Movie Trailer: A tight-knit team of rising investigators, along with their supervisor, is suddenly torn apart when they discover that one of their own teenage daughters has been brutally murdered.

Rating: PG-13

Run Time: 1 hour 51 minutes

Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts

How the actors look:

Julia Roberts: frumpy.

Nicole Kidman: fabulous.

Chiwetel Ejiofor: frustrated.

That's the quick scorecard for Secret in Their Eyes, the grim, English-language version of a 2009 Oscar-winning Argentine mystery/thriller.

The stars all bring their A games, but beyond their convincingly moody performances this dour remake has little to recommend it — unless you're in the market for a circuitous, 13-year ordeal of loss, regret and missed opportunities.

The year is 2002, and America is still reeling from 9/11. Jess (Roberts) is a Los Angeles cop, Claire (Kidman) is an ambitious deputy district attorney, and Ray (Ejiofor) is a terrorist-hunting FBI agent in the City of Angels. When Roberts's daughter is murdered, the three join forces to track down the killer. Even after the monster confesses, however, the feds hand him a get-out-of-jail-free card; apparently he's also a confidential informant who has infiltrated a terror cell.

Flash-forward 13 years, and the three have found divergent fortunes: While Claire has risen to DA, Ray heads security for the New York Mets and Jess is still a cop — a walking shell of a cop, with haunted eyes and perpetually downturned mouth. Believing he has located the killer again in L.A., Ray returns to the city to bring the creep to justice.

Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor and actress Julia Roberts

Karen Ballard/Courtesy of STX Films

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Julia Roberts star in 'Secret in Their Eyes.'

Ray's return reopens old wounds. It also promises — threatens? — to reignite the flame that once flickered between him and Claire. This leads to numerous interludes in the cold-case investigation during which Ray and Claire stare longingly at each other and bite their own lips. We soon begin rooting for them to run off together, partly because someone deserves some happiness in this grim scenario but also because Kidman and Ejiofor are two of the world's most beautiful people.

So is Roberts, of course, but everyone's favorite Pretty Woman is anything but that here. Her first appearance — schlumping through a door, file folders pressed to her chest, hair pulled back, eyes sunken into her skull — elicits a gasp from the audience. And Roberts plays the part to match the look; after 13 years, Jess remains inconsolable over the death of her daughter. It's a strong, transformative turn for Roberts, and it distinguishes her as the best thing by far about Secret in Their Eyes — a film that drapes a trio of very good performances on a mystery that is unpredictable only in the sense that we dismiss the obvious outcome early on, thinking, "There's no way they'd go there … uh, is there?"

But go there they do, proving that no matter how loud you scream "Stay out of that basement!" no one on screen ever listens to you.

The Oscar-winning version of this film was layered with observations about mid-1970s Argentine politics, a time when that nation was just emerging from the shadow of dictator Juan Perón. Writer-director Billy Ray tries to wring similar dramatic mileage from the climate of post-9/11 America, but the link between the outside world and his characters' inner misery seems tenuous.

By the final frame, it becomes clear that everyone in the film has essentially wasted the past 13 years of their lives. "And we've wasted the past two hours of ours!" would be the obvious movie critic's joke here. But let's leave such predictable observations to Secret in Their Eyes, a film that trades shamelessly in the obvious.

Bill Newcott is a writer, editor and movie critic for AARP Media.