Screen

updated 08/26/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/26/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When Bad Movies Happen to Good People: Seeing Martin Short and Danny Glover in Pure Luck is a reminder of seeing painfully wasted talent, such as Steve Martin and Rick Moranis in My Blue Heaven, Teri Garr in The Sting II, Gene Kelly in Xanadu, Richard Burton in Exorcist II, Dustin Hoffman in Ishtar, Dennis Quaid in Great Balls of Fire! Goldie Hawn and Mel Gibson in Bird on a Wire, William Hurt in Alice, Meryl Streep in She-Devil and, of course, the granddaddy of wrong roles in the wrong place at the wrong time, John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror.

PARIS IS BURNING
Documentary

Los Angeles-raised filmmaker Jennie Livingston vividly displays the world of New York City black and Hispanic gay male transvestites who preen at drag costume balls. This is not, though, much of an achievement. Bringing out the exhibitionistic tendencies of these men is hardly a challenge; exhibitionism seems the point of their lives.

And Livingston offers little context: How do these men make a living? What family life do they have? Do they really worry mostly about what their next outfit is going to be like? So her film has cruel overtones, dwelling on a pathetic desperation that has impact only on the people who are enduring it.

Hearing a male prostitute talk of his dream—to "meet the right man, get married and move to the suburbs"—may make you cringe, but it teaches little. Confusing being uncritical with being credulous, Livingston has created a rarely enlightening, only voyeuristically interesting film. (Unrated)

THE COMMITMENTS
Robert Arkins, Andrew Strong

It's hard to think of another great movie musical—a category The Commitments belongs in—that relies less on fantasy. From Shall We Dance? and Cabin in the Sky to Flashdance, flights-of-fancy plots have cushioned the music that was at the heart of things.

But this film about a scruffy bunch of young Dubliners who get a band together to play American '60s R&B hits has a gritty, if not grim, subtext. While it is never pretentious, it is in effect a pop opera, driven by the raw, sexy, sometimes angry music that it salutes.

Director Alan (Fame) Parker uses an all-Irish cast. The most famous, Maria Doyle, was a singer with the vaguely successful group the Hothouse Flowers. Few had ever acted before. They are almost all extraordinary.

Arkins, 21, plays the son of a working-class, Elvis-worshipping man; it is Arkins who becomes the manager of a band formed partly from people who answer his musicians-wanted ad.

His lead singer, whom he finds wailing drunkenly at a wedding, is Strong. Strong, only 16, looks 20 years older and sings with the fury of a Joe Cocker. His versions of such songs as "Mustang Sally" and "In the Midnight Hour" charge the film with energy. Doyle, Angeline Ball and Bronagh Gallagher, as the Commitment-ettes, admirably perform such tunes as "Bye Bye Baby" and "Chain of Fools."

Roddy Doyle, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais wrote the script from Roddy Doyle's novel. They make the young Irishmen sympathetic even though they're often unlikable. Strong is a sexist boor. Johnny Murphy, as an aging trumpeter who insists he played backup for Elvis and the Beatles, is sanctimonious and scheming. Gallagher burdens the band with her personal life, including her infant siblings.

The bitter offstage squabbling only serves to heighten onstage intensity. As shallow as they are personally, in performance the Commitments transform into artists.

Parker has lapses. The audition sequence is too reminiscent of The Fabulous Baker Boys. The actors' thick accents and slang make the dialogue tough to understand, and most of what is clear is pointlessly obscene. Wilson Pickett, the old R&B star, doesn't appear, yet he is gratuitously trashed.

Parker, though, masterfully uses the Irish's obsession with their own alienation to establish a rapport between his young performers and the black Americans' music they come to love. The cathartic power of music has never been more graphically demonstrated. (R)

PURE LUCK
Danny Glover, Martin Short

It sort of looks like a comedy. It sort of sounds like a comedy. But someone obviously erased all the script's funny lines before this film got made.

While Glover and Short go through the motions, they are like wide receivers running complex pass patterns on a football team whose quarterback can't throw the ball more than two yards. Glover is a private detective. Short is a chronically unlucky accountant. They are hired by a tycoon whose daughter is lost in Mexico. Since she is as unlucky as Short is, her father thinks Short may be able to find her.

Writers Herschel Weingrod and Timothy Harris teamed on Kindergarten Cop, which was as clever as this film is banal. One problem may be that they are Americans writing for a Greek director, Nadia (Malcom) Tass, in an adaptation of a French movie (Le Chèvre) that's being filmed in Mexico and Canada. There are, for instance, long speeches leading nowhere, at least nowhere near a laugh: "There's time for intimidation, and there's time for more subtle methods. So go back to the hotel. Please. That's an order."

With the verbal-humor quotient hovering near zero, Short's clumsiness is all there is, and while he is a genius at smooshing his nose against panes of glass, even that gets tiresome. (PG)

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