Jack Nicholson, Ellen Barkin

This dismal black comedy, the tale of an unlikely romance between Nicholson, a mangy dog trainer struggling with wife and money troubles, and Barkin, a cultured, newly divorced classical music singer, is flatter than Roseanne Arnold's notorious version of "The Star-Spangled Banner"—and just as painful to sit through.

The convoluted plot has Barkin and Nicholson coming together when she, having been threatened by an unknown assailant, buys an attack dog from him. An inveterate womanizer, Nicholson puts the make on her first out of habit and then because he is being paid to do so by a Howard Hughes-type billionaire (Harry Dean Stanton) who wants Nicholson to snatch back from Barkin an embarrassing tell-all manuscript left in her care. The manuscript was written by Barkin's floozy sister (Beverly D'Angelo), with whom Stanton has had an affair.

Not that viewers will care tremendously about any of this. Scenes that are supposed to play funny don't, such as those in which Nicholson and his Asian-born wife, Lauren (Cadillac Man) Tom, whom he insists on calling "Iwo Jima," meet with a touchy-feely marriage counselor; scenes that are supposed to terrorize, such as the one in which a black-hooded figure swings an ax at Barkin, don't have any impact either. It all just seems choppy, sloppy and stupefying. It's as if everyone involved simply threw up their hands and said, "Let's just finish the damned thing and move on." This is all the sadder since director Bob Rafelson, screenwriter Carole Eastman and Nicholson were the moving forces behind Five Easy Pieces, one of the best movies of the early '70s.

Although Nicholson ekes a limp chuckle or two out of such double entendre lines as "These guys look upon a woman as an object, but I look upon a woman as a whole," he seems alternately muted and over the top (even by his own fairly extravagant standards), mussing his hair and waving his arms frantically, as if he were Leonard Bernstein conducting the Fidelio overture. Barkin appears not to have a clue as to who her character is—the script certainly offers no help—and settles for acting like the dimmest bulb to come down the General Electric assembly line in years. The skilled supporting cast, which includes Veronica Cartwright, Saul Rubinek and Michael McKean as well as D'Angelo and Stanton, is largely wasted. This dog could have profiled substantially from some more training. (PG-13)

Fanny Ardant, James Fox, Ben Keyworth

A psychological thriller that is a lot more psychological than it is thrilling, this movie by English writer-director Mark Peploe (he wrote the screenplays' for The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky) builds up some tension before, halfway through the film, Peploe shoots himself in the fool—or, to use the movie's running image, stabs himself in the eye.

The first half of the film concerns a London psycho who is stalking and slashing blind women. Ardant, a star in a number of Francois Truffaut's films as well as his paramour, always plays nervousness well and is strikingly sympathetic as a blind woman who is part of a knitting group at a clinic (the better to provide a steady supply of knitting needles for eye-stabbing purposes). Fox (The Russia House) is his usual stabilizing self as Ardant's police detective husband, and 12-year-old Londoner Keyworth, who has the bulgy-eyed look of a young Peter Lone, is Fox and Ardant's sweet-natured son.

Then, out of nowhere, the whole movie makes a 180-degree turn toward oblivion:

Ardant is no longer blind. Fox is a florist, not a cop. British TV actress Clare Holman, who started out as Ardant's blind best friend, now can see, and she has become Ardant's stepdaughter. Meanwhile there is a new focus on Keyworth's own blindness-inducing eye problem, as well as an expansion on the unnatural interest in knitting needles he began developing in the first segment of the movie.

Peploe has put a kind of psychobabble veneer on this film, saying in promoting it that it came from his desire to know "where aggression comes from and how it is sparked off by different kinds of fear." That sounds a lot more rational than his film plays, since it winds down in a confusing, pointless flurry of gory images, including scenes of Keyworth menacing his dog and his newborn sister.

You've heard the saying about something being as much fun as a poke in the eye with a sharp stick? This is that poke in the eye with a sharp stick. (R)

Melanie Griffith, Eric Thai, Tracy Pollan, Mia Sara

Police dramas are generally described as gritty or suspenseful. If not for the hamminess of some of its performances, this Witness-Yentl hybrid would be the first on the blotter to be labeled strictly kosher.

Griffith is a brash, seen-it-all detective who is assigned to investigate a murder in Brooklyn's close-knit Hasidic Jewish enclave. For very questionable purposes, Griffith decides that solving the case requires her to become part of the community—to affect the Hasidim's hyper-modest garb and speech and observe their strict dietary and religious customs.

Eric Thai, in Hasidic garb, keeping an eye on Melanie Griffith

Before you can say mazel tov, she has shed her policewoman-feminist carapace, eagerly working with the women to prepare Sabbath dinner, becoming fast friends with a demure Hasid (Mia Sara) and even falling in love with one of the enclave's most devout, scholarly residents—Thal, in a nice debut.

Director Sidney (Q & A) Lumet made the regrettable choice of sacrificing credible character development and a worthy script for the sake of maintaining Hasidic authenticity and attenuated scenes of religious observances. Pollan is truly dreadful as the murder victim's scenery-chewing fiancée, while Griffith is scarcely more convincing as a smart-mouthed undercover detective infiltrating Crown Heights than she was portraying a smart-mouthed half-Jewish spy infiltrating the Third Reich in Shining Through.

But even actresses who don't sound like Minnie Mouse on helium would have difficulty making plausible such lines as. "I do what I want when I want. I'm an independent woman" and "You people really care about each other.

"What's new and exciting?" is Griffith's opening gambit in every conversation she has in A Stranger Among Us. What's new and exciting, Mel? In this film, nothing. (PG-13)

Joan Plow right, Miranda Richardson, Josie Lawrence, Polly Walker

Lawrence, a squashed cabbage of a woman married to a smug, dictatorial solicitor in post—World War I London, and Richardson, the pious wife of a philandering author, join forces to rent a castle in Italy. Surely the wisteria and sunshine touted in the newspaper ad will do them mountains of good. To save money, they recruit two strangers to join in their expedition: Plowright, who gives a characteristically terrific performance as a vinegary, literary-minded widow, and Walker (Patriot Games), a beautiful and bored heiress who, it turns out, has been having an indiscretion with Richardson's husband.

One whiff of wisteria, one dappling of sunshine, and they are changed women all. Lawrence is full of love; Richardson, once described as looking like "a disappointed madonna," is full of hope; Plowright is full of pep (she even throws her cane away and takes up watercolors); and Walker is full of resolve. With trepidation, Richardson and Lawrence invite their husbands to the castle. They come, they see, they are immediately conquered by their wives' newfound sexual magnetism.

Enchanted April, while it is woefully thin on plot and character motivation, is stuffed with hackneyed shots of foliage and flowers, mist over water and bathers doing back floats. There are occasional witticisms—"I wouldn't mind authors so much if they didn't write books"—but there aren't enough of them to satisfy even the modest goals of this movie. What was obviously intended to be gentle romantic comedy has instead turned out to be twittery tedium that mostly comes across as mediocre Masterpiece Theatre. (PG)

  • Contributors:
  • Leah Rozen,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Joanne Kaufman.