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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Bum Rap': A Bittersweet Paean to Life

June 04, 1993|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With "Bum Rap" (at the Sunset 5), a wonderful, bittersweet comedy, writer-producer-director Daniel Irom makes a brave feature debut by posing a tough question: What would you do if you were told, with certainty, that you had but 72 hours to live?

This is what Craig Wasson's immensely likable Paul Colson tries his best to answer. He's a sweet guy, a warm, full-bearded bear of a man, a struggling New York actor who supports himself driving a cab and who has just celebrated his 30th birthday. A routine physical exam discloses that he is suffering from a rare and fast-acting form of lymphoma.

From the first frame Irom makes all the right moves, establishing a gently humorous tone and showing us the kind of guy Paul is in an extended pre-credit sequence shot in black and white. The news is all the more devastating because of what Paul hasn't achieved and never will: He has not married, he's just backed away from a woman (Frances Fisher) who wants him only for a friend, and apparently hasn't had a paying gig since he did a diapers commercial over a year before. But if he is to make the most of the time left to him, he can't wallow in a sense of failure or self-pity.

Irom makes Paul's reaction to the bad news and his course of action entirely credible, which of course is essential if the film is to work. Once past shock, rage and a drunken binge, Paul behaves the way we all would hope to in the face of imminent death. He goes ahead with his regular evening of poker with old pals and arranges to have dinner with his parents in Flushing the next evening. In the meantime he zeros in on the prettiest and youngest streetwalker he can find (Blanche Baker), paying her for her company rather than for sex.

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Very early on Paul realizes he's been handed literally the role of a lifetime if he is to make his farewells to his friends and family. He has but one final chance to win over his dour, disapproving father (Barton Heyman).

In a very real sense "Bum Rap" is more about acting than dying, while at the same time reminding us that unless we're struck dead or comatose in an instant, Paul is playing a role that we'll have to play sooner or later. He decides that he is glad that he tried to succeed as an actor--that the effort to do what one wants to do with one's life is worth the attempt. Lisa has vague dreams of acting herself, playing Chekhov, no less, and Paul becomes convinced of her talent, even if she is not.

As one might suspect by now, Paul is the kind of role actors adore, and Wasson has never been better, more wide-ranging, deeper or engaging. His is the kind of work that would automatically be considered at Oscar nomination time had "Bum Rap" a major distributor behind it. (Irom has had a hard enough time getting his film released, let alone being able to afford publicizing it.) If anything, Baker has a tougher role than Wasson does, for she must be believable as a street prostitute yet suggest that she has the talent to be a classical actress; the two aren't actually mutually contradictory, but Baker must overcome, as she does triumphantly, the widespread assumption that they are. The entire cast is of equally high caliber, with Al Lewis a standout as the sort of hateful old neighborhood duffer that haunts many people's memories of childhood.

Since Irom is unafraid of upfront sentiment, there's every reason to fear that he will take a typically easy disease-of-the-week way out, but just at the pause you think this may be happening, he moves on to a truly stunning, risk-taking finish. It would be a bum rap indeed if the handsome-looking "Bum Rap" (Times-rated Mature for adult themes) doesn't get the chance to find the audience it deserves.

'Bum Rap'

Craig Wasson Paul Colson

Blanche Baker Lisa DuSoir

Al Lewis Mr. Wolfstadt

Anita Gillette Drunk Woman

A Millennium Films presentation. Writer-producer-director Daniel Irom. Executive producers Jon Kilik, Mindy Schneider, Eric Seidman. Cinematographer Kevin A. Lombard. Editor Michael Berenbaum. Costumes Beatrix Aruna Pasztor. Music Robin Monroe. Art director Lyn Pinezich. Sound Reilly Steele. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes.

Times-rated Mature (for adult themes).

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