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MOVIE REVIEW : A Sugarcoated 'Three of Hearts'

April 30, 1993|PETER RAINER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Three of Hearts" (citywide) has a steamy premise but it's all wet--amusing but wet. It's like a bargain-bin "Indecent Proposal," another movie that lacked the courage of its own smarminess.

Joe Casella (William Baldwin) is a sweet-souled male escort in Manhattan who entertains a proposition with one of his clients, Connie (Kelly Lynch), a nurse who has just been ditched by her lover, Ellen (Sherilyn Fenn). Connie's idea is that since most guys are crumb-bums, she'll get Joe to woo Ellen and then break her heart so she'll come running back to Connie. Joe, who's on the outs with a local tough guy, hides out in Connie's apartment and gets on with business, showing up at a literature class Ellen teaches at NYU in an attempt to turn her googly-eyed. He wants to be teacher's pet in the worst way. (Best of all, he's only auditing, so no term papers.)

Since Joe is basically a good sort--only slightly more wised up than Jon Voight's hayseed hustler in "Midnight Cowboy"--his machinations with Ellen are bound to backfire. She's an innocent too. Guess what happens?

Even though Connie's ploy is desperately cruel, she's also portrayed as a softie--she may strut around in leather jackets but, remember, she's a nurse, a nurturer. (She plays out the latest movie cliche of watching home movies of her lost love--remember Michael Douglas in "Falling Down"?) So in a movie that's set up for all sorts of psychosexual jujitsu, what we end up with is downy-soft sentiments.

Joe may be a whore but his pimp (Joe Pantoliano) is to blame for keeping him in the life; his filthy rich tricks, like the aging matron (Gail Strickland) who greets him in garters, are just plain filthy. They're so avid for their boy toy that they don't recognize he has a soul. This is the kind of dewy erotic fantasy that usually turns up in the romance novel bins--or on the USA television network. Joe may be a heel but he's the heel who cares.

The lesbian angle in "Three of Hearts" (rated R for strong language and sexuality) is just a rejiggering of the usual romantic-triangle formula. It's a refreshing variant until you realize that nothing is going to come of it. The movie wouldn't work much differently if Connie were a man. (It might actually make more sense.)

Joe, we're made to understand, learns to accept women as, well, people. With Connie, he's blissfully free from erotic expectation; he's humbled by Ellen's goodness. But Joe doesn't look as if he needs sensitivity training; he's pretty much the same sweetie-pie from beginning to end. Director Yurek Bogayevicz, working from a script by Adam Greenman and Mitch Glazer, pulls back from showing any ugliness in his three people--probably because to do so would have been to expose the ugliness of the situation. But that ugliness isn't something to be shirked--it ought to be a dramatic opportunity. The filmmakers want to be praised as healers without opening any wounds.

Baldwin has a gangly good nature that at least keeps Joe believably sympathetic. He seems amused by his own come-hither sexuality and, when he's with his tricks, he keeps his voice in mid-purr, the same voice he uses for phone sex. Fenn overdoses on niceness. Once Ellen starts warming to Joe, she's made up to look so staid and schoolmarmish that you begin to think the filmmakers are equating her burgeoning heterosexuality with the '50s look.

Lynch looks uncomfortable but she's enough of an actress to make her discomfort work for the role. She's been so good in so many negligible movies, from "Cocktail" to the straight-to-video "Warm Summer Rain," that she's in danger of becoming one of those first-rate character actresses who bail out bad movies. She can make the best of a bad situation. Maybe that's why, in "Three of Hearts," Connie looks at Joe with such simpatico.

'Three of Hearts'

William Baldwin: Joe

Kelly Lynch: Connie

Sherilyn Fenn: Ellen

Joe Pantoliano: Mickey

A New Line Cinema release. Director Yurek Bogayevicz. Producers Joel B. Michaels and Matthew Irmas. Executive producer David Permut. Screenplay by Adam Greenman and Mitch Glazer. Cinematographer Andrzej Sekula. Editor Dennis M. Hill. Costumes Barbara Tfank. Music Joe Jackson. Production design Nelson Coates. Art director Douglas Hall. Set decorator Linda Lee Sutton. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.

MPAA-rated R.

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