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MOVIE REVIEW : Failing Grade for High School Romance

May 08, 1992|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

Who would ever have guessed that Zalman King would end up giving John Hughes, the erstwhile tycoon of teen, a run for his money?

Yes, this is the same steamy Zalman King who wrote and produced "9 1/2 Weeks" and who made so much money directing Carre Otis' carryings-on in "Wild Orchid" that this--his latest attempt at writing and directing--was inevitably called "Wild Orchid II: Two Shades of Blue" even though the two items have exactly zilch in common.

And while, true to form, "Blue" (selected theaters) is not shy about nudity and features boggling dialogue like "Naked women sitting on straight-backed chairs, what could be more beautiful?," in its secret heart of hearts it is really a sentimental high school romance with more in common with the Hughes' "Pretty in Pink" than either Hughes or King would probably like to think about.

For Nina Siemaszko's Blue and Mollie Ringwald's character in "Pink" really are sisters under the skin. Both play winsome teens from the wrong side of the tracks who find the road to romance with the coolest guy in high school littered with the debris of the worst kind of social snobbery. But while all Ringwald had to live down was having an affable layabout like Harry Dean Stanton for a father, Blue has a bit more of a stigma to contend with: She's come to high school straight from a stint as the highest-priced talent in the snootiest whorehouse in the whole state of California.

It didn't start out that way, of course. When we first meet Blue it's 1958 and she's happy as a clam traveling around the state with her trumpet-playing, heroine-addicted but loving father Ham (an understandably confused-looking Tom Skerritt). Mrs. Ham has conveniently disappeared along the way after her husband gave her what he colorfully but cryptically describes as "a piggyback ride straight to hell."

Ham, it will come as no surprise, very quickly comes to a sad end. With the connivance of jazz club owner Jules (Warhol veteran Joe Dallesandro, of all people), a penniless Blue comes to the attention of haughty madam Elle (the fine Australian actress Wendy Hughes) who archly throws down the gauntlet: "If you're strong enough, if you're brave enough, you'll come to work for me."

Blue agrees and, despite a whiny, pouty, downright unfriendly temperament that would seem to render her unfit for any kind of people-oriented work, she appears to be a smashing success. On the other hand, this ain't no ordinary whorehouse. Not only do most of the clients wear black tie, but the women are all stunning, and often come to Elle with the hooker equivalent of advanced graduate degrees. "Dominique was trained in Paris," Elle coos to Blue. "Watch her undress. Her technique is impeccable."

And Blue's clientele is, to put it mildly, a bit odd. There is a faultlessly dressed elderly gentleman who merely wants her to sit by his side and scream, a senator who bears a non-accidental resemblance to John Kennedy, even a high school lad she managed to fall madly in love with despite having glimpsed him only briefly while traveling around with her dad.

Naturally, the boy doesn't recognize her then, or even when, many improbable plot twists later, they end up in, yes, the same high school English class, studying "King Lear." He's the star quarterback, she lives on the wrong side of town; it is, as noted, John Hughes all over again.

What you'll remember about "Wild Orchid II," (rated R for strong sensuality, language and drug content), if you remember anything at all, if you even bother to go, are these moments of supreme ridiculousness, not to mention a tone of melancholy solemnity that would be better suited to a documentary on the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. What you won't remember are the sex scenes, because, nudity notwithstanding, this film is surprisingly coy and uninvolved where moments of passion are concerned. John Hughes may appreciate that, but it's not clear if anyone else will.

'Wild Orchid II: Two Shades of Blue' Nina Siemaszko Blue

Wendy Hughes: Elle

Tom Skerritt: Ham

Robert Davi: Sully

Brent Fraser: Josh

Released by Vision International. Director Zalman King. Producers David Saunders, Rafael Eisenman. Executive producer Mark Damon. Screenplay Zalman King. Cinematographer Mark Reshovksy. Editors Marc Grossman, James Gavin. Music George Clinton. Production design Richard Amend. Art director Randy Eriksen. Set decorator Chance Rearden. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (strong sensuality, language, drug content).

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