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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Watch It' Strikes a Nerve


"Watch It" (selected theaters), a scintillating yet serious romantic comedy, finds Peter Gallagher's John, just arrived from Texas to a fine old Chicago suburb, immediately led by his cousin Michael (Jon Tenney) to the kitchen of a large turn-of-the-century home and ordered to hide in the refrigerator. Moments later Michael's housemate Rick (John C. McGinley) comes home, complains about his work as a salesman, opens the refrigerator door whereupon John, following his cousin's instructions, leaps out, exclaiming "Watch It!"

In an instant John, who's been working as an oil rigger, is indoctrinated into a game that Michael, Rick and their other housemate Danny (Tom Sizemore) take all too seriously. The idea is to pull off a prank with as much ingenuity as possible. Once the victim is hooked you're supposed to shout "Watch It!" You're also not supposed to get angry but instead get even, but John quickly discovers that the two seem to be hopelessly intertwined.

The great thing about this thoroughly engaging film is that writer Tom Flynn, in his directorial debut, uses this silly game as a point of departure, a metaphor for the tendency of American men--white middle-class males in particular--to resist growing up. (Michael and his friends look to be thirtysomething but still carry on like fraternity boys.) Flynn also ponders the mystery of how really terrific women can be attracted to jerks, suggesting that the hope of changing them seems to be part of that attraction. He reminds us, too, how much cruelty and anger humor can reveal.

When John drives up to Michael's house a wary look crosses his face--with good reason. Michael has never lost his childhood sense of betrayal by John over an unjust course of events over which John, a child himself at the time, had no control. Michael is now a real heel, especially when it comes to women, which propels his veterinarian girlfriend (Suzy Amis), a pale, patrician beauty, into the arms of John, who is a nice, decent guy but has yet to settle down and is overwhelmed by the possibility of true love. Meanwhile, Rick, who revels in savage, adolescent jesting, responds with an unfamiliar flick of feeling for the sensible, forthright Ellen (Cynthia Stevenson) by becoming nastier than he already is. He's so immature he's reflexively threatened by emotion--something he clearly has never before experienced.

"Watch It" truly strikes a nerve, yet for all the complexity of its numerous people, proceeds with the brisk dispatch of high comedy, deftly juxtaposing moments of pain with inspired hilarity. Flynn matches his way with words with his actors to the extent that those who have but a single line make an impression. Gallagher has distinguished himself on stage and TV as well as films, where he most recently scored in "sex, lies and videotape" and "The Player," and now moves easily into a starring slot as the likable John, the film's moral anchor.

McGinley, one of the film's co-producers, and Tenney more than meet the challenge of making jerks seem human, and they set a high standard for supporting performances for this year, as do Stevenson and Sizemore, for his easy-going Danny. Fresh from raves for "Rich in Love," Amis continues to establish herself as a leading lady of exceptional grace and presence. As Amis' smart, spunky assistant, Lili Taylor displays the kind of pizazz that would give Rosie Perez a run for her money. The handsomely wrought "Watch It" (rated R for language and a scene of sexuality) is definitely worth a look.

'Watch It'

Peter Gallagher: John

Suzy Amis: Anne

John C. McGinley: Rick

Jon Tenney: Michael

Cynthia Stevenson: Ellen

Lili Taylor: Brenda

Tom Sizemore: Danny

A Skouras release. Writer-director Tom Flynn. Producers Thomas J. Mangan IV, J. Christopher Burch, John C. McGinley. Executive producers David Brown, William S. Gilmore. Line producer Fran Roy. Cinematographer Stephen M. Katz. Editor Dorian Harris. Costumes Jordan Ross. Music Stanley Clarke. Production design Jeff Steven Ginn. Art director Barbara Kahn Kretschmer. Set decorator Martha Ring. Sound Allan Byer. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (for language and a scene of sexuality).

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