Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Judy Davis, Juliette Lewis, Liam Neeson, Sydney Pollack

At best, this putative comedy about the inherent instability of romantic relationships would seem depressingly cynical, melancholy and only intermittently funny. This is a film devoted, after all, to the expressed credo "In the end, what matters is to not expect too much out of life." But it is also burdened with the public dissolution of Allen and Farrow's offscreen love affair. Listen for the distracting titters in the audience every time Allen or Farrow, who play a Manhattan couple whose marriage is deteriorating, says something that seems self-referential, as when Farrow asks, "Would you ever keep any secrets from me?"

The only effective joke by writer-director Allen comes when he, playing a 50ish college writing teacher, is trying to deflect the verbal seductions of Lewis (Cape Fear), his precocious 20-year-old student, and mutters, "Why is it I keep hearing $50,000 worth of psychotherapy trying to dial 911?"

Pointlessly framed as a pseudo-documentary about Davis and Pollack (Allen has often parodied the documentary style with far better, wittier results), the film is uncharacteristically vulgar by Allen's standards—with Davis, especially, being saddled with scatological exclamations and F-word conjugations and declensions. (At one demoralizingly stupid point, Davis shrieks, "This is my f—ing house!" And Allen can't come up with anything more clever for Pollack to reply than, "This is my f—ing house!"

Davis (Barton Fink) and Pollack, best known as a director (Tootsie, Out of Africa), play Allen and Farrow's best friends. Their breakup leads Allen and Farrow, already feuding over Farrow's wish to have a baby, to split too, just as Allen is starting to haphazardly court Lewis.

There are relationships aplenty, with Davis engaging in a fling with the stolid Neeson (Darkman), while Pollack hooks up with Lysette (Switch) Anthony, an astrology-spouting aerobics instructor who thinks Shakespeare's play about an aging monarch was called King Leo.

None of this constitutes an affirmation of the power of love. Davis, mordantly portraying a controlling harpy with both Pollack and Neeson, suggests the only choices are "chronic instability" or "suburban boredom."

Allen seems intent, in fact, not only on muddled middles but unhappy endings. He also disdains the playfulness that has always relieved the psychological tension of even his most pointed, serious-undertoned comedies. This film plays mostly like a bitter, oppressive Upper West Side soap opera—full of New York City insider jokes about local streets and elitist slams at everything from vegetarians to television.

Ironically, while they seem to be essentially playing themselves, Allen and Farrow do some of the best acting of their careers. They never seem to be having fun, though, and people who see the movie are unlikely to find much to enjoy either. (R)

Sean Astin, Lara Flynn Boyle, Dermot Mulroney, Balthazar Getty, Ricki Lake, Laura San Giacomo, Kyle MacLachlan, Will Smith

Slickly crafted and artfully acted, this kids-on-the-street movie is reminiscent of GoodFellas in its inordinate attention to a group of profoundly unsympathetic, unrelievedly despicable social parasites.

Here, Mulroney (Bright Angel) is the informal leader of a group of runaway teenagers who live on the street (or under freeway overpasses) in Los Angeles, surviving by various hustles. Astin (Encino Man) is a drug-addicted member of Mulroney's pack, while Getty (Lord of the Flies) is a part-time gay prostitute who is very sweet-natured except for his obsession with firearms. Smith (TV's Fresh Prince of Bel Air) is a resilient paraplegic, while Boyle (TV's Twin Peaks) is a newcomer to the underpass subculture, having just arrived from Chicago, to the dismay and jealousy of the frumpy, affection-starved Lake (Hairspray).

These are not star-struck kids rejected by Hollywood and left homeless. Rather, they are irresponsible brats who find the street life romantic and basically prefer having chips on their shoulders to working. Director and co-writer Marc (Dream a Little Dream) Rocco, son of veteran actor Alex Rocco, never provides any context for the youngsters' disaffection, other than a brief scene showing Astin returning to his turbulent home and his brutalizing father. Rocco tells much of the story statically, showing Mulroney being interviewed by social worker San Giacomo (Quigley Down Under), and he wastes that splendid young actress by showing her face fleetingly. Even at that, her distinctive, raspy voice makes her a substantial presence. MacLachlan (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me) adds a villainous performance as a brutal drug dealer, and Peter (The Marrying Man) Dobson is another noteworthy bad guy as a pimp who tries to pick Boyle up right off the bus.

The young cast, especially the charismatic Mulroney, the desperate Astin (who evokes the memory of that appealing dramatic-movie clown William Bendix) and the thoughtful Getty, overcome much of their characters' repulsiveness. No thanks to Rocco and writing partners Kurt (Genuine Risk) Voss and newcomer Michael Hitchcock; their script is doggedly lacking in eloquence and insight, except for a painful scene in which Getty reluctantly succumbs to an aging trick.

The inevitable (and inevitably invidious) comparison is to Martin Bell's 1984 documentary Streetwise, which chronicled the abysmal lives of real kids living on Seattle streets. Rent that video before or after you see this film. Better still, rent it instead. (R)

  • Contributors:
  • Ralph Novak.