Picks and Pans Review: A Merry War

updated 09/07/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/07/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Helena Bonham Carter, Richard E. Grant

You can't get sprung from high school (and shouldn't) without reading George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm, but his earlier novels go mostly uncracked. It's not likely that the often amusing but rather slim A Merry War, which is based on a semiautobiographical 1936 Orwell novel titled Keep the Aspidistra Flying, will change that.

The movie's hero (Grant)—or antihero, given his lack of charm—quits his job as a copywriter at a London ad agency after publishing his first book of poems, declaring, "I am now a poet and a free man." He soon becomes a poor man, much to the distress of his loving but sensible girlfriend (Bonham Carter, in a deft performance). He is all for the reckless gesture; she is the voice of propriety. "I won't make love where dogs pee," she explains when he embraces her lustily in an alley.

"You're so middle-class," he berates her.

"I'm not middle-class, just hygienic," she counters.

Although Orwell's keen humor shines through in A Merry War, the movie frequently strains too hard to hit its punch lines. (No rating)

Bottom Line: Combat between the sexes has seen better battles

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