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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Moonlight' Fails to Capture a Promising Subject

September 29, 1995|JACK MATHEWS | FOR THE TIMES

A bad tactical decision was made by writer Ellen Simon and director David Anspaugh at the very beginning of "Moonlight & Valentino," and the movie neither backs away from it nor recovers from it. In setting up their story of a young widow's stand-off with grief, the filmmakers chose not to introduce us to the subject of her loss; rather, they have him die off-screen, hit by an unseen car while jogging in an unseen park, and leave us to wonder what kind of person he was and what sort of relationship they had.

True, the movie is about healing, not loss. It's about how Rebecca (Elizabeth Perkins) becomes dependent on the emotional support of the three women closest to her, and how that dependency affects their lives. But it's pretty hard to understand her feelings after the tragedy without knowing what they were before, and from her reaction, you might think she'd lost the keys to her car.

Simon, daughter of playwright Neil Simon, adapted "Moonlight" from an autobiographical play she wrote in 1989, the year after her husband was killed while jogging in New York City. The three members of Rebecca's support group--her sister Lucy (Gwyneth Paltrow), best friend Sylvie (Whoopi Goldberg), and stepmother Alberta (Kathleen Turner)--represent the circle that gathered around Simon in her time of need.

That's a promising subject for dramatizing, and timely, given Hollywood's emerging interest in women. But it remains nothing more than a subject, a premise for a lazy dramatic comedy where everything is implied and nothing revealed. Its payoffs, such as they are, come through Rebecca's trio of rescuers, each of whom has her own problems.

Lucy is an awkwardly virginal college student still emotionally unhinged by the death years earlier of her mother. Sylvie is clinging to a marriage she knows is over. And Alberta seems to be dividing her time equally between her flourishing investment career and her compulsive campaign to win the acceptance of her stepdaughters.

None of these crises, or their resolutions, is very compelling. They're just there, subplots providing some nice moments of comic relief and some gaggers of sentimentality.

Cutting grief with humor is a daunting task, particularly when the pain is personal. Neil Simon himself failed while mourning his wife's death in "Chapter Two," and Ellen, who shows a measure of dad's gift for sardonic one-liners, has followed suit.

The actresses do their best with the thin material and are actually very engaging when simply interacting. Goldberg gets the biggest laughs, naturally, and Paltrow gives Lucy a combination of flakiness and innocence that makes her the most interesting of the quartet.

The title is a reference to Rebecca's hunky house painter (Jon Bon Jovi) who takes his shirt off and buckles the knees of the four onlookers. Bon Jovi is making his film debut in the Brad Pitt role, the sexy drop-in who knows how to put the bounce back in a lonely girl's step.

But this is no career-maker. Bon Jovi seems hunky enough, with his Kato Kaelin locks and toned abs, but he has no screen presence whatsoever, and his lines--which must have looked so cool and seductive on paper--are delivered as if he were slightly embarrassed by them.

\o7 * R for brief strong language. Times guidelines: The film \f7 contains \o7 profanity, sexuality and brief nudity.\f7

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

'Moonlight & Valentino'

Elizabeth Perkins: Rebecca Trager Lott

Whoopi Goldberg: Sylvie Morrow

Kathleen Turner: Alberta Russell

Gwyneth Paltrow: Lucy Trager

Jon Bon Jovi: house painter

A Working Title production, released by Gramercy Pictures. Director David Anspaugh. Producers Alison Owen, Eric Fellner, Tim Bevan. Screenplay by Ellen Simon. Cinematographer Julio Macat. Editor David Rosenbloom. Costumes Denise Cronenberg. Music Howard Shore. Production design Robb Wilson King. Art director David Ferguson. Set designer Carol Lavoie. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.

\o7 * In general release throughout Southern California.\f7

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