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'Laws of Attraction' should be cited for contempt of comedy

The Julianne Moore- Pierce Brosnan effort lacks the screwball zing. But Frances Fisher as Moore's mom? Wicked.

April 30, 2004|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

What goes up must come down, and so it is with romantic comedy, which can be currently seen down, down in the dumps with "Laws of Attraction."

A leaden attempt to recapture the effervescence of classic screwball, this vehicle for star and executive producer Pierce Brosnan and to a lesser extent his partner in banter, Julianne Moore, confirms that two leads will attract each other with a force directed along the line of centers for the two objects, though sometimes alcohol may be involved. But only if the script doesn't stink.

Regrettably, the screenplay reeks. Redolent of leftover Rob Reiner, stale Penny Marshall, moldy Billy Crystal, the film revisits the sort of he-said, she-said routine that kept the war of the sexes raging through the 1930s and 1940s and at a modest bubble during the prime of Meg Ryan. Certainly the setup alone suggests that screenwriters Aline Brosh McKenna and Robert Harling have a passing acquaintance with screwball and the sentimental romances of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. As in the Tracy and Hepburn duet "Adam's Rib," Brosnan and Moore play divorce attorneys who work opposite ends of the courtroom while alternately loving and loathing. Unlike Tracy and Hepburn, the loving and loathing here are absent music and wit and tend to imply that what Moore's character really needs is a good frolic.

Maybe she does, although from glossy head to toe Moore's Audrey Woods looks like she's accustomed to attention. Naturally, the idea that a dish as tasty as Moore is in desperate need of a man, because, as she explains, once upon a time she was pimply, plump and lost in the shadow of the most beautiful woman in New York City is meant to be a rich joke. Much richer and somewhat surreal in an old-school studio sort of way, is the idea that the 51-year-old Frances Fisher, who plays Audrey's mother with Eve Arden tang, looks remotely old enough to be the 43-year-old Moore's mother. No wonder when Brosnan's Daniel Rafferty first takes a gander at dear old mother he winks approvingly at her youthful appearance. (Brosnan should too -- he's 50.)

Directed by Peter Howitt, whose highest-profile feature to date was the similarly pallid romance "Sliding Doors," "Laws of Attraction" isn't a disgrace; it's just dull, a flat-line comedy. (Howitt's earlier film at least had the virtue of being a pale imitation of Krzysztof Kieslowski's "The Double Life of Veronique.") Brosnan and Moore work their characters as hard as they can, but they get precious little assistance from either the script or their director. The story brings the couple together, tears them apart and puts them on planes to and from Ireland, in all probability so native son Brosnan could spend some time in the old country. In between all this transcontinental shuttling, a badly used Parker Posey and Michael Sheen pop up as a feuding designer-wife and rocker-husband to deliver shrill second-banana nonsense.

At the heart of screwball comedy lies an erotic promise delivered with a knowing smile and zingy innuendo. Discretion is a lost movie art, but in Brosnan and Moore's thrusts and parries its traces quaver hopefully. Moore has a face for tragedy, but her veneer cracks beautifully when she smiles and she moves with the sprightly athleticism of a screwball heroine.

For his part, Brosnan often seems vacuum-sealed onscreen, but he can come marvelously alive when playing the roue, as he did in "The Tailor of Panama." Quincy Jones once said that Sean Connery, another James Bond, reminded him of a panther. Brosnan generally brings to mind a show dog -- very well groomed, very well behaved -- but every so often he flashes a look that suggests under all the good breeding waits an awfully hungry wolf.


'Laws of Attraction'

MPAA rating: PG-13, for sexual content and language

Times guidelines: Mild adult language and situations

Pierce Brosnan...Daniel Rafferty

Julianne Moore...Audrey Woods

Parker Posey...Serena

Michael Sheen...Thorne Jamison

Frances Fisher...Sara Miller

New Line Cinema and Mobius Pictures in association with Stratus Film Company, Intermedia, MHF Zweite Academy Film and Initial Entertainment Group, a Deep River/Irish DreamTime production in association with Fern Valley Limited, released by New Line Cinema. Director Peter Howitt. Writers Aline Brosh McKenna, Robert Harling. Story Aline Brosh McKenna. Producers David Bergstein, Beau St. Clair, Julie Durk, David T. Friendly, Marc Turtletaub. Director of photography Adrian Biddle. Production designer Charles J.H. Wood. Editor Tony Lawson. Music Edward Shearmur. Costume designer Joan Bergin. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

In general release.

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