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MOVIE REVIEW

Made for each other: The maiden and the misanthrope

A writer with a talent for alienating women meets his match in 'Dedication.'

August 24, 2007|Jan Stuart | Newsday

If you frequent romantic comedies, you are familiar with the Big Sprint. This is the climactic moment when a character comes to his senses and, as if propelled by Cupid's wings, runs halfway across town to reclaim the love he has so foolishly sabotaged. In the really scurvy rom-coms, the Big Sprint is generally followed by the Big Ovation, when the kissing couple is cheered on by a peanut gallery of strangers mystically united by the shared conviction that love is all you need.

In the really enduring ones, the joy of the sprint soon dissolves into the shrug of skepticism. As Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon contemplate a lifetime of card games at the close of "The Apartment" or Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross make their escape on public transport in "The Graduate," we linger in the dark of the fade-out with one question on our lips: What now?

That question has rarely resounded as loudly as it does at the end of "Dedication," whose protagonist suffers from such a bloated fear of intimacy he can barely sit in a room with himself for a minute without acting on an impulse to refurbish his surroundings. In coffee-shop booths, he habitually separates ketchup bottles from any contact with napkin receptacles, one of those metaphors-for-dummies that should set off alarm bells in anyone with whom he happens to be sharing breakfast.

Henry Roth, an assertively antisocial writer played with consummate snarkiness by Billy Crudup, has enough negative tricks up his sleeve to start a new sub-genre of self-help literature: the self-destruct book. Instead, he cobbles together children's books with his artist buddy Rudy (Tom Wilkinson), an avuncular bachelor whose true age is betrayed by his taste in '70s pornography. After they hit pay-dirt with a kiddie tome inspired by one of their porn outings, Rudy promptly drops dead.

The loss only lends more fuel to Henry's misanthropy, which goes into high-flame mode when his publisher dumps a new collaborator in his lap, a financially and romantically bereft illustrator named Lucy (Mandy Moore, in full comic bloom). Henry has Lucy's number from the get-go and he goes after her with the same cynical weaponry that has sent all of his girlfriends fleeing.

They fall for each other, natch, an inevitability that is made more interesting by the casting of Moore, who seems to delight in subverting the cotton-candy pop star image of her teen career. Part of the pleasure in seeing Lucy match wits with Henry is the suspicion that Moore lacks the technical savvy to take on a seasoned actor like Crudup, who chomps into his character's barbed observations with the single-mindedness of a caged lion at feeding time.

Screenwriter David Bromberg spits out bitingly original dialogue with such flair and seeming ease that you almost forget he's tooling around with some pretty well-worn tropes. The convention of the deceased aide-de-camp who hectors and counsels the protagonist from beyond the grave has most recently been worked over by that wonderful Canadian TV series, "Slings & Arrows," while the notion of the child-inappropriate children's hero is as dated as Soupy Sales.

"Dedication" is peppered with drolly passive-aggressive supporting characters and actors equipped to do them full justice. Bob Balaban as Henry's bottom-line publisher and Dianne Wiest as Lucy's enabling mother are at their idiosyncratic best. Their fearless leader is Justin Theroux, making his directing debut with aplomb and a plummy soundtrack.

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"Dedication." MPAA rating: R for language and some sexual content. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. In selected theaters.

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