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'Goodbye Lover' Isn't Just About Making Fun Of People--It's Also About Making Fun Of Religion And Other Things.

By James DiGiovanna

APRIL 26, 1999: 

(Note: Reviewers and pundits like to make much of the age difference between actors involved in on-screen romances. To aid you in outrage and/or awe, I've included the birthdays of all the major stars in this film.)

PATRICIA ARQUETTE (April 8, 1968) stars in Goodbye Lover, a new noir comedy that has received positive reviews for its sense of humor and twisty plot, and some negative reviews on its ethics. Probably a lot of the trouble stems from the film's disdain for Christianity, the religion that brought us the Crusades and living cookies.

While Goodbye Lover's steamy sex scenes get their kick without revealing any part of the body normally covered by a bathing suit, their setting and accouterment could be a problem for the ethically minded critic. The first scene d'amour takes place in a Christian church, where the organist gives new meaning to his job title by getting a little action while playing Bach. This caused my movie companion, who wished to remain nameless, to mincingly spout, "Deliciously wicked!"

Later in the film a Mormon police officer is mercilessly teased by his cynical lesbian partner. Played to a tee by Ellen Degeneres (January 26, 1958), who's much funnier in her last two movie appearances than she was in her TV series, Sgt. Rita Pompano gets most of the best lines in the film. Asked by her innocent partner why she's so negative, she pauses thoughtfully and replies, "Because somebody killed Bambi's mom." Wondering why anyone with such a general disdain for humanity would take a job whose motto is "Serve and Protect," the partner asks Sgt. Pompano what reasons she could have for being a police officer. Ellen nails the comeback line, "Because every once in a while I get to shoot somebody," getting bonus laughs with her newly perfected sense of comic timing and intonation.

The story isn't just about making fun of people who believe that virgins give birth to fleshy little gods, though. There's also some nice jabs at Tony Robbins, the self-help, other-hurt guru with the advanced case of monsterism who preaches the virtues of selfishness. Robbins is the unwilling narrator of this film-noir comedy, as Arquette's character Sandra Dunmore recites along with tapes of Robbins espousing his "go for it" philosophy.

Sandra's version of "going for it" apparently involves having an affair with her husband's wealthy older brother, played by Don Johnson (December 15, 1949). She tells Johnson's character, Ben Dunmore, that he's an awesome lover, would he like some olives with his Nazi leather sex, and isn't it time to kill his brother so the two of them can live happily ever after?

Ben Dunmore isn't too keen on killing his brother, or, as it turns out, on olive-coated Nazi leather sex, so he dumps Sandra and hooks up with his hyper-innocent assistant, Peggy Blaine, played by Mary-Louise Parker (August 2, 1964). This seems to enrage Sandra, who expresses anger by stripping down to her lace-top thigh-highs and hiding out in Ben's car.

Ben's brother Jake is played by Dermot Mulroney (October 31, 1963), who, in real life, is married to Catherine Keener (whose date of birth is listed only as "circa 1959"), one of the best screen actresses of all time. She's not in the movie, but I thought I should include her rough birth date for purpose of comparison. Anyway, younger brother Jake calls Ben, tells him he knows about the affair and is going to kill himself, and Ben comes running, only to find that things are not as they seemed.

At this point the plot gets as complicated and dangerous as a Tucson suicide lane at 4:01 p.m. Soon, bodies are piling up and double-indemnity insurance clauses are kicking in. Investigating the murders (it's best I not ruin the 14 plot twists by saying who gets murdered by whom), Degeneres' Sgt. Pompano arrives to add some official, police-based sleaziness to the amateur, civilian sleaziness provided by Arquette and company. In this vein, Pompano has to tie up Arquette into a variety of aesthetically pleasing bondage poses while questioning her.

When she's not hog-tied on her back, Arquette's character responds to the deaths of those around her with an increased interest in Martha Stewart, who we just know would find the perfect swan-shaped cocktail bowls for the funeral buffet.

As Arquette's Martha Stewart/Tony Robbins world keeps her moving forward, Degeneres' cynicism helps her close in, and the two provide neatly antithetical views of contemporary womanhood coming into deadly conflict. Well, not really, but they are amusing together.

There's also some nice sub-plot stuff about Don Johnson's public relations firm, where he's considered "the six-headed Vishnu of P.R.," and a scandal wherein a senator has to suck up to the religious vote because another man was caught sucking up to him. Layers of sleaze like this push the plot forward, but the real force of the film is Degeneres' humor, without which this would be just a mediocre Double Indemnity ripoff.

While Goodbye Lover is certainly not Oscar material, it'll at least keep you reasonably entertained for two of the 672 hours remaining until Star Wars--Episode 1: The Phantom Menace opens in theaters everywhere.

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