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FEBRUARY 23, 1998: 

The Wedding Singer

There's lots of amusing '80s nostalgia wrapped up in this mindless but cute romantic comedy. Adam Sandler plays the film's lovable lug, Robby Hart, a Van Halen wanna-be who ekes out a meager existence living in his sister's basement and pulling gigs as a wedding singer. On the other side of the romantic equation sits Julia (Drew Barrymore), a doe-eyed wedding caterer with a bouncy outlook on life. The two make an immediate connection, but as fate has it each is already engaged to someone else. Of course love finds a way, and after getting stiffed at the altar Robby realizes his heart's true desire and sets off after Julia in a series of comical missteps.

The plot, a formulaic siphoning of My Best Friend's Wedding and Four Weddings and a Funeral, is pitted with eddies of inert melodrama. What keeps things moving are the sprightly performances by Sandler and Barrymore. Sandler shows an emotional range beyond his usual mercurial knucklehead; Barrymore drops her adolescent nymph in favor of a more sensitive, mature persona. Allen Covert is a cheesy delight as Robby's sidekick, personifying the superficial gloss of '80s pop culture. The cameos by Steve Buscemi, Billy Idol, and Jon Lovitz are entertaining bits, and the soundtrack, a virtual who's who of the "Big '80s," tops that of Grosse Pointe Blank.

-- Tom Meek


Sphere

With Ice Cube's directorial debut, The Players Club, upcoming and Sphere, Barry Levinson's adaptation of Michael Crichton's science-fiction bestseller Cube now in the theaters, this year is well represented by three-dimensional geometric shapes. If Sphere is any indication, however, this is not a good trend. Levinson's first venture into the genre is plodding and dreary, a waterlogged hodge-podge of Alien, The Forbidden Planet, and Crichton's own The Andromeda Strain.

The military, having discovered a huge spacecraft at the bottom of the Pacific, wants to penetrate the hull and make contact with whatever life forms might be inside, so it gathers a team of experts: Norman Goodman (Dustin Hoffman), a neurotic psychologist; Beth Halperin (Sharon Stone), a skittish biochemist; Harry Adams (Samuel L. Jackson), a sardonic mathematician; Ted Fielding (Liev Schreiber), a nerdy astrophysicist; and Barnes (Peter Coyote), the enigmatic team leader. As long as Levinson sticks to easygoing interaction à la Diner, Sphere is amusing enough. (My favorite lines, quoted out of context, are "Follow the Yellow Brick Road!" and "I need a last name for my report.") But when it comes to action, special effects, and suspense, he should stick to wagging the dog. The concept is intriguing -- it's that alien-within-being-more-terrifying-than-the-alien-without thing again, with Hoffman adding a twist by reprising his Outbreak romantic situation with Stone -- but the plot unfolds with the dramatic structure of a Rolodex. Long before Sphere dithers to its forgettable climax it's become as flat as a pancake.

-- Peter Keough


Senseless

Ever since the second season of In Living Color, the Wayans brothers have been on a losing streak. And Marlon Wayans doesn't break it in Senseless, where he stars as a college senior who participates in a medical experiment that would give him super-senses. He uses these new powers to impress the Wall Street firm he wants to work for, to look at girls' butts, and to eavesdrop on some oh-so-wacky homosexuals, replete with lisps. But then Wayans flubs the dosage and loses control of one of his five senses at any given time. How will he ever get the job now?

The ensuing mishaps are woefully predictable -- while blind, he buys a really ugly suit! -- and Wayans's slapstick gags quickly become repetitive. As the snotty rival, David Spade offers his standard wise-ass delivery but doesn't get any funny lines to work with. There's something hideously wrong when Spade has better material on Just Shoot Me. And there's lots more wrong when a film's best joke involves premature ejaculation -- then again, the two guys in front of me were howling at the rectal-itch scene, and a lot of the audience seemed to find the Tourette's-syndrome jokes hilarious. The best part about Senseless is the soundtrack by Yello (best known for the closing theme to Ferris Bueller's Day Off), who provide a gloriously sinister techno backdrop to a lame comedy that appeals solely to the lowest common denominator.

-- Dan Tobin


Palmetto

Palmetto stars Woody Harrelson as Harry Barber, an ex-journalist who learned that honesty doesn't pay when he exposed a local graft scandal and was rewarded with a frame-up and two years in jail. So when temptation knocks, in the form of curvy Rhea Malroux (Elisabeth Shue), Harry is too eager to respond. A rich invalid's trophy wife, Rhea proposes to Harry that he help stage the kidnapping of her jailbait stepdaughter, Odette (Chloe Sevigny), in return for a cut of the ransom. Harry is clever enough to Linda Tripp his meetings with Rhea and Odette but too dumb to shut off the tape recorder when discussion gives way to heavy breathing, or to guess that, when the scheme inevitably goes horribly awry, he'll be the patsy.

Harrelson is famously good at stupid, but it's hard to sympathize with a hero who's dense as well as venal, especially since you'll anticipate the plot twists long before he does. Doesn't he ever go to the movies? And what about director Volker Schlöndorff, who gets the swampy Florida atmosphere right but errs seriously in casting Gina Gershon as Harry's nice girlfriend and Shue as the femme fatale, instead of the other way around? At least Shue's deliriously awful performance, which deteriorates from mere awkwardness to I'm-ready-for-my-close-up-Mr.-DeMille bug-eyed lunacy, adds some camp value to Palmetto's otherwise tedious proceedings.

-- Gary Susman


Love Walked In

Any thought that Juan José Campanella's directorial debut might be a blithe romantic comedy vanishes with the opening image: an eviscerated cat. Things don't get much more appetizing in the course of this sour mish-mash of Indecent Proposal and Deconstructing Harry with a soupçon of The Fabulous Baker Boys. Denis Leary adds to his screen-career snafus as Jack Morrissey, an embittered, recovering alcoholic who's failed at music and writing and makes a pittance in a nightclub by playing back-up piano for his chanteuse wife, Vicky (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), and by grousing about rich people in weary, unfunny monologues. Fred Moore (Terence Stamp, looking confused out of drag), one of these rich people, is amused by Jack's prattle, and more taken by his wife. Spurred by a private-investigator buddy, Jack and Vicky plot to have her seduce the married Moore and then blackmail him. The expected happens, in a sense, twice. It seems Jack hasn't quite given up his writing aspirations and is typing away a bloated pulp novel of bogus good and evil paralleling his own story, which we get to see enacted. With Love, the time to walk out is when the cat gets it.

-- Peter Keough


General Chaos: Uncensored Animation

Blame it on the Christmas Poo. When this animated feces smeared its way across the urchin-populated world of Comedy Central's South Park, it pretty much wiped out the need for naughty animation fests. If video killed the radio star, then cable just may off Spike & Mike.

Still, it's not just a matter of what's more gross or titillating. Much of this collection's 21-gag salute simply lacks the hip irreverence of TV's cartoon line-up. Bill Plympton's scribbly "Sex and Violence" vignettes wield all the bite of a Shoebox Greeting Card; Joel Brinkerhoff's cat-and-mouse spoof, "Zerox and Mylar," can't catch the gory glee of The Simpsons' Itchy and Scratchy.

That's not to say there's nothing inventive here. Frances Lea & Jayne Bevitt's sick but sweet "Oh Julie!" spies on the hapless humping of two bulbous puppets; Walter Santucci's manic "Attack of the Hungry Hungry Nipples" erects one mean pair of areolae'd action heroes. Best of all are Tony Nittoli's Saltine-addicted bird in "Junky" and Vince Collins's tripped-out vaginal mystery tour in "Malice in Wonderland." But, minus the irony, a pixillated penis is neither funny nor shocking. If this fest wants to keep pace with the immensely popular fare that's on TV, it had better change its 'toons.

-- Alicia Potter


Afriques: Comment ça va avec la douleur?

Raymond Depardon named his documentary after a greeting that, he says, is now common in Africa: "How are you doing with the pain?" He filmed for three years in diverse regions: the post-apartheid slums of Soweto, the drought-ravaged farms north of Johannesburg, the war-torn rubble of Angola, prisons, AIDS clinics, the bush and the desert. Result: a three-hour work that is equal parts heartstopping beauty and horrific destitution.

Depardon imbues scenes of peasant life with a sensual, Arcadian quality; elsewhere he's brusque and businesslike, as when he captures children scratching in the dirt for grains of corn spilled by a government truck. The journalistic-style commentary can be naive: he recounts the statistics of HIV infection (women's risk is twice men's, all over Africa) without mentioning female genital mutilation, and he touches only briefly on the military corruption and thievery that sabotage international food-relief efforts. But when he allows the images to speak, there are times when the very soul of humanity is laid bare, almost unwatchable, in the eyes of children who have known poverty, hunger, illness, and little else.

-- Peg Aloi


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