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‘Godsend’ – what were they thinking?

Robert De Niro overacts, while Rebecca Romijn-Stamos and Greg Kinnear both come off looking a bit loony, in this ridiculous thriller about cloning. By John Hartl

When an actor develops a tick that no one can forget, perhaps it’s best to leave it alone. Case in point: Humphrey Bogart expressing Capt. Queeg’s agitated mental state by rolling steel balls around in his hand. It worked in “The Caine Mutiny” 50 years ago, but today it seems a device fit only for sketch comedy.

Alas, Robert De Niro, no less, can’t resist doing a steel-ball-rolling Queeg routine in “Godsend,” and he seems to mean it. While no signs of self-parody are visible (aside from the fact that the balls are noticeably larger), the movie generates plenty of unintended giggles. His character, Dr. Richard Wells, is a mad scientist, straight out of “Frankenstein” and its heirs, who specializes in the illegal practice of cloning children.

Dr. Wells’ latest victims are a distraught married couple, Paul (Greg Kinnear) and Jessie (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) Duncan, who have just lost their eight-year-old boy, Adam (Cameron Bright), in a traffic accident. Dr. Wells arrives at the boy’s gloomy funeral to offer a tempting form of rebirth: using one cell from Adam’s body, he claims he can reproduce the boy almost exactly.

Offended at first, the grief-engulfed Duncans initially reject the plan, but Jessie and then Paul decide they have no options. In no time at all, the new Adam (also played by Bright) has reached his eighth birthday. Then split-personality problems develop, as Adam 2 ventures into territory unexplored by Adam 1.

Directed in an overwrought, mannered style by Nick Hamm (“Talk of Angels,” “The Hole”), the movie starts eeriely enough with a hint that Paul is a doomed man, a kind of accident-prone creature dogged by fate. Adam’s death, which is staged in a way that makes it look horrifyingly preventable, seems part of a terrible pattern that Paul can’t escape. If only he and his wife were a bit luckier, they might not be forced to share this nightmare.

After Dr. Wells makes his first appearance, however, the movie loses its grip. It gradually turns into the kind of ridiculous Gothic thriller that can’t stop borrowing from “The Sixth Sense” and “The Omen” and other horror films about psychic or evil children. It doesn’t help that Bright’s doll-like features are used in a way that suggests that Adam is related to the monstrous Chucky doll of the “Child’s Play” movies.

The more Kinnear and Romijn-Stamos attempt to demonstrate what ideal parents Paul and Jessie are, the more they express their love for the increasingly creepy Adam, the loonier they appear. And when the malevolent Dr. Wells confesses his paternal feelings toward Adam, there’s little De Niro can do to put the idea across.

The screenwriter, Mark Bomback (currently working on “Die Hard 4”), sets up too many shock scenes that neither shock nor surprise, while failing to make the relationship between Paul and Jessie count. In the end, despite the actors’ hard work, even their anguish looks generic.