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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Bodies, Rest & Motion' a Sweet, Goofy Portrait of Human Flux : This brainy tale depicts four 'in-betweeners' in their late 20s, caught between dissolving illusions and elusive possibilities.

April 09, 1993|MICHAEL WILMINGTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Comedy is long-shot and tragedy is close-up," Charlie Chaplin once claimed. If that's so, then the sweetly hip comedy "Bodies, Rest & Motion" (selected theaters) may be an in-betweener: sliding in and out of medium-shot, squeezing out laughs just this side of sobbing, focusing on pains that, from a step or two farther back, could make us howl with merriment.

In some ways, this brainy romance, adapted by director Michael Steinberg and Roger Hedden, from Hedden's play, could be called a portrait of a generation. But that makes it sound too pretentious. It's a goofy portrait, alternately dappled with sorrow and limpid with laughter. It's dreamy, tart and sexy; it swings.

The film's title refers to Newton's Second Law--the proposition that bodies in rest or motion stay that way until acted on by an outside force--and that metaphor seems to control the characters. Mythical Enfield, Ariz., is their arena: a honey-lit desert city of nondescript malls, neat little streets and lawns, bare rooms and hot skies. Enfield, created out of bits and pieces of Tucson, Ariz., is like a Southwestern dollhouse-town, and moving through its charmingly arid and square topography are four compact characters: Phoebe Cates' pert Carol, Bridget Fonda's vulnerable Beth, Tim Roth's obnoxious Nick and Eric Stoltz's amiable Sid.

This foursome, all in their late 20s, "in-betweeners" themselves, give "Bodies, Rest & Motion" its special mix of bite and caress. Cleverly depicted as prototypes of their unsettled time--trapped between dissolving illusions and elusive new possibilities--they're acted with high relish and nuance by a cast that seems delighted to be together. And Steinberg, who showed humanity, precision and depth in his last film, "The Waterdance" (co-directed with writer Neal Jimenez), shows more here: a bittersweet lyricism that illuminates what could have seemed slight or sordid.

For some audiences, it still may. From one angle, this group is a morally loose, shallow, egoistic, uncommitted bunch, imbued with everything that made the '80s, for some, a dubious achievement.

Nick and Beth are a couple--temporarily. Nick, fired from his TV salesman job, plans to leave Enfield. Carol, Nick's old flame and Beth's best pal, shows up. Nick bugs out early, leaving Beth with broken dreams and a brand-new TV. Sid, the handyman, unknown to any of them--except Beth, with whom he flirted at an intersection the night before--comes to repaint the house. Night falls . . .

What's obviously happening is a shifting or reordering. Just as Nick and Beth's old house is stripped of its furniture, color and character, the quartet is reassembling into new patterns--or trying to. And just as Nick--whose surly self-absorption is trenchantly caught by the selfless Roth--keys the first half of the film, Sid's entrance slowly shifts the center of gravity. Sid is Nick's "opposite": a homebody where Nick is restless, in love with the here and now that Nick, apparently, can't stand.

Does this make the women sound like tag-alongs? Not here. They're opposites too. Fonda gives Beth a fine, raw openness and vulnerability, while Cates encloses Carol in an armor of deliciously calculated cutie-pie mannerisms, head-bobs and watchfully ironic stares, most of which suggest she's as manipulative as Nick. Sid and Beth are the dreamers; Carol and Nick are the cynics. And, as the movie wryly recognizes, they're all closer than they think.

Economic and evocative dialogue, wonderful acting, sprightly humor, emotional suppleness, a marvelously inconclusive conclusion, an ingenious Michael Convertino score that mixes Indian incantation with soft syncopation: "Bodies, Rest & Motion" has a lot to offer in a small package.

But perhaps we should give a special nod to its eroticism--something Steinberg also caught with delicacy and feeling in "The Waterdance." Movie bed scenes have gotten such a satiny overall sameness, they take the kiss out of sex. Surely, it's not just the fact that Fonda and Stoltz are an off-screen couple that makes their scenes here so tender, memorable and right, sensual but not carnal.

'Bodies, Rest & Motion" Phoebe Cates: Carol Bridget Fonda: Beth Tim Roth: Nick Eric Stoltz: Sid

A Fine Line Features release. Director Michael Steinberg. Producers Allan Mindel, Denise Shaw. Executive producer Stoltz. Screenplay by Roger Hedden. Cinematographer Bernd Heinl. Editor Jay Cassidy. Costumes Isis Mussenden. Music Michael Convertino. Production design Stephen McCabe. Art director Daniel Talpers. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (for language and sexuality).

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