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MOVIE REVIEW : In Clever 'Denise,' Friends Reach Out, Almost Touch

April 12, 1996|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

Meet Frank, Barbara, Martin, Gale, Jerry, Linda and, of course, Denise. Please. Because even though they're all great friends, they won't meet one another. Not in person. Not ever.

"Denise Calls Up," one of the surprise treats of last year's Cannes Film Festival, is an unconventional burlesque of the modern age. It's about lives lived through telephones, modems, faxes, computers, conference calls and answering machines. Consider it a call-waiting comedy.

Written and directed by first-timer Hal Salwen, "Denise" tries something daring and makes it work. It's a film that does without conventional two- and three-character scenes: All its people are photographed alone in their various rooms, doing what they do best, working hard and talking on the telephone.

That scenario may sound unsurprising, but it's anything but. For this is a very chatty and inventive group of friends, capable of doing almost everything on the phone from casual flirting to heavy-breathing sex. All without any face-to-face interaction.

"Denise" starts the morning after a big party at Linda's apartment. At least it should have been a big party, but no one came. Not that Linda (Aida Turturro) really minded the total no-show. She's been really busy after all.

Being busy is the only thing this bunch of neurotic, stressed-out drones has in common. They can hardly get on the phone without complaining about being "inundated," "swamped," "besieged," "up to my ears" and "overburdened work-wise." It's no wonder that when they attempt to set up personal meetings, they find themselves booked through eternity and beyond.

*

Still, they try. Actually, it's mainly Frank (Tim Daly) and Gale (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) who try. Not to meet each other, naturally, but to set up his friend Jerry (Liev Schreiber) with her friend Barbara (Caroleen Feeney). They'd be perfect for each other, if only their jobs didn't swallow them whole.

Of this group, only the very pregnant Denise (Alanna Ubach) doesn't have any work to do. In fact, she may not even have a home. But she does, naturally, have a portable phone, which she uses to inform Jerry's friend Martin (Dan Gunther) that, courtesy of a theoretically anonymous donation he made to a local sperm bank, he's about to become the father of her child.

Written and acted with considerable charm, "Denise Calls Up" displays the natural, undefinable playfulness of a kitten. At only 80 minutes, it doesn't overstay its welcome, but slight though it may be, it knows how to create constant smiles.

* MPAA rating: PG-13, for sexual references and nudity. Times guidelines: a scene of phone sex.

'Denise Calls Up'

Alanna Ubach: Denise

Tim Daly: Frank

Caroleen Feeney: Barbara

Dan Gunther: Martin

Dana Wheeler-Nicholson: Gale

Liev Schreiber: Jerry

Aida Turturro: Linda

Sylvia Miles: Aunt Sharon

Davis Entertainment and Skyline Entertainment Partners in association with Dark Matter Productions, released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director Hal Salwen. Producer J. Todd Harris. Executive producers John Davis, Stephen Nemeth. Screenplay Hal Salwen. Cinematographer Michael Meyers. Editor Gary Sharfin. Costumes Edi Giguere. Music Supervision Lynn Geller. Production design Susan Bolles. Set decorator Rob Dew. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

* At selected theaters throughout Southern California.

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