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UPDATED 03/13/1989 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 03/13/1989 at 01:00 AM EST

THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN

At the start of this renegade epic, a series of titles over the action sets the scene—and the tone: "Late 18th Century. The Age of Reason. Wednesday." It's an impertinent joke typical of director Terry Gilliam; it's also the last time this ramshackle comedy is coherent. Of course, as a Monty Python alum and the director of Brazil, Gilliam long ago made coherence his archenemy. And at a reported $40 million, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is an expensive way to prove a point. A meditation on fact and fiction and what lies between them, Gilliam's movie extrapolates on the real life of an 18th-century cavalry officer whose fantastical stories made him a Germanic Don Quixote. Like Münchausen, Gilliam is a gifted storyteller unshackled by convention and uninhibited by his follies. But the baron seems to bring out the barren in Gilliam. As the baron ricochets from adventure to adventure condemning the nasty habits of Rational Man, the movie segues from costume drama to monster movie, from picaresque romance to sex comedy. In the best episode, Münchausen, his sidekick Berthold, and the 10-year-old girl who is his devoted disciple travel to the moon, where they meet Robin Williams. As the King of the Moon, Williams separates his head from his body when he's intellectually repulsed by his physical desires. Literally floating, Williams provides the comic kick that should have been the movie's signature. None of the other performers, including John (Topaz) Neville, who plays Münchausen, or Eric Idle as Berthold, match Williams's invention—or that of the director. Even when this cockamamy comedy sputters, however, Gilliam never totally disappoints. From its Fellini-esque palaces to its Dickensian streetscapes, the film is a visual wonderland. The entire movie could be the work of Gilliam's King of the Moon. Its intellectual intent and the physical production seem disconnected, leaving a film that bedazzles the eye even as it bedevils the mind. (PG)

NEW YORK STORIES

For this ambitious trilogy, Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola and Woody Allen each created a short film intended to crystallize the character of modern Manhattan. At its best—and two of the three segments so qualify—New York Stories is like the city it celebrates: entertaining, fanciful, nerve-racking, unique. In "Life Lessons," directed by Scorsese and written by his Color of Money collaborator Richard Price, Nick Nolte excels as a painter whose most creative passions are reserved for his assistant, Rosanna Arquette. Charged by Scorsese's prowling camera and a brilliant use of Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale," Nolte and Arquette act out a mesmerizing tango of self-destruction. Scorsese has a masterful sense of the incongruities of life in downtown New York, and his well-acted drama has the haunting clarity of Price's best short stories. While the ending falters, Scorsese never abuses your attention. If only the same could be said of Coppola. Written by Coppola and daughter Sofia, 17, his segment plays like a private story between father and child. Anyone else will need a map. As the heroine of "Life Without Zoe," Heather McComb is the precocious daughter of a flautist, Giancarlo Giannini, and a photojournalism Talia Shire, whose marriage is meandering. The plot seems to be about Zoe's attempts to reunite her parents, although it might take a psychic to know for sure. "Life Without Zoe" struts all the enigmatic grandiosity Coppola seemed to have forsaken with Tucker and Peggy Sue Got Married His New York story ends up in Greece. How's that for arrogance? The film's best third is saved for last. Allen's "Oedipus Wrecks" is the most pungent, crowd-pleasing examination of the Jewish-mother complex since Portnoy's Complaint. Hounded by a mom who doesn't like his shiksa fiancée, Mia Farrow, lawyer Allen tells his shrink, "What can I say? I love her, but I wish she would disappear." Mom gets revenge by becoming an apparition in the sky over Manhattan, from where she tells passersby about her son's bed-wetting. Wonderfully played by Mae Questel, the original voice of Betty Boop, this mother could drive any son to a five-session-a-week shrink habit, if not matricide. Like all of Allen's best work, "Oedipus Wrecks" is as riotous as it is penetrating. (PG)

BILL AND TED'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE

True enough; this desperate, bozo-brained Valley Guy saga is filled with excellents. About 250 of them, in fact, as in "A most excellent idea," "The most excellent Mongol, Genghis Khan," "Be excellent to each other" and the generic "Excellent!" The main comic premise seems to be that anything, if repeated often enough, is funny. So almost every sentence contains a "totally" or an "excellent" and in either case is almost sure to end in "dude." Keanu (River's Edge) Reeves and Alex Winter play two teenagers who get hold of a time machine. Then they round up a crowd of famous people who become exhibits at the boys' high school history oral final. The gangly, addled Reeves and the short, sneery Winter seem to have just graduated with honors from the Chevy Chase—Sean Penn School of Charmlessness. Or maybe they're merely stunned by debuting screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon's feeble script. While the plot may sound like Back to the Future, this film stumbles over most of its potential laughs. For one thing, the rock and roll focus of the script—Reeves and Winter are aspiring heavy-metal bandsmen—cried out for a few big musical stars to do cameos as the historical personages. Joan Jett as Joan of Arc, maybe, or Ozzy Osbourne as Genghis Khan. Instead the only vaguely recognizable face is former Go-Go Jane Wiedlin as Joan, while such people as Lincoln, Freud and Socrates are portrayed by obscure character actors. (Pop stars Martha Davis, Clarence Clemons and Fee Waybill do appear as futuristic types, but none of them is a household face.) The redoubtable George Carlin appears as the time machine's custodian, a listless straight man. The movie mostly stands as a tribute to ignorance and a monument to dweebs everywhere, especially in the film industry, and most especially in the office of director Stephen (Critters) Herek. (PG)

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