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This Year's Love David Kane (18) n Holy Man Stephen Herek (PG) n Foreign Land Walter Salles/Daniela Thomas (NC)

GREAT THINGS are expected of This Year's Love, a Camden-set comedy that entangles its gifted Anglo-Scots cast in a cat's-cradle of pairings and partings. First up the aisle are tattoo-artist Danny (Douglas Henshall) and clothes designer Hannah (Catherine McCormack), though married bliss evaporates before the cake has been cut when Danny discovers his bride has recently bonked the best man. Their split ushers in a ronde of bed- hopping and partner-swapping: there's Cameron (Dougray Scott), a philandering artist so unwashed you could grow mushrooms on him; there's Sophie (Jennifer Ehle), a self-loathing trustafarian and single mum; Marey (Kathy Burke), a hopeful club singer and self-styled "fat bird"; and Liam (Ian Hart), a nerdy Liverpudlian romantic with a vulnerable streak.

Divided into three one-year segments, David Kane's film ponders the impermanence of love and the comedy of happenstance. Its upfront way with sex and relationships - the conviction that it's somehow "telling it like it is" - has already won comparisons with the cult soap This Life. The obvious difference is that our attitudes to the This Life ensemble were changed and deepened over a period of weeks: we felt as though we were getting to know them. At feature length, on the other hand, time is at a premium, and the possibilities of character development are limited. Nuance is blunted as months are concertinaed into minutes.

Yet the film's failure to emulate a cult soap can't be used as the stick to beat it with. This Year's Love has larger problems in script and scope, problems that afflict all British romantic comedies to one degree or another. I think it's the effort to be simultaneously cute and streetwise that undoes it, particularly when the tone darkens in the latter half. While you may ascribe the implausibility of the chance encounters to romantic licence, benefit of the doubt is sharply withdrawn once Liam tries to commit suicide after finding Hannah in bed with another woman. (He must be the only 30-year-old man in London who's never heard of a lesbian before.) Abortion and mental illness rub shoulders uneasily with domestic violence and class snobbery, yet they're never anything more than pit-stops on the route to the big romantic set-piece we've seen coming a mile off. In other words, it's this year's try for the Four Weddings jackpot.

The case of Eddie Murphy is a curious one. What other actor has turned in a blistering debut (48 Hours, back in 1983), done almost nothing of worth since, and yet remained a box-office success? The best you can say of his performance in Holy Man is that it's not an embarrassment. He plays G, an itinerant seeker who's discovered on a Miami roadside by Ricky (Jeff Goldblum), a TV shopping-channel executive whose career is on the slide. In a desperate bid to halt his slump, Ricky puts his new friend on air, and suddenly the holy man's beatific patter is racking up the sales.

For a while it seems that Holy Man intends to satirise the imbecility of American consumerism. In fact, the film is just another soft-centred redemption-through-love story as comely executive Kate (Kelly Preston) tries to show Ricky the error of his exploitative ways.

Goldblum, who knows a thing or two about squandering his talent, starts off in rare form; with his crocodile smile and heavy-lidded eyes he makes this sleazeball huckster appealing, even endearing. (His true metier is slime, and I mean that as a compliment.) Once the film reaches for the moral high ground it deadens his comic rhythms; he's any old sap in a suit. Perhaps recognising the lameness of the script, Murphy and Goldblum have some fun together ad-libbing, but it doesn't help the time pass any more swiftly.

Pity poor Brazil. The country elects its first president in 1990 after 30 years of military dictatorship and he thanks them by confiscating the saving accounts of the entire population. This Draconian measure - the starting-point of Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas's Foreign Land - causes one old woman in Sao Paulo to expire, leaving her son Paco (Fernando Alves Pinto) to organise a funeral he can scarcely afford. Drunk and disconsolate in a bar one night, he is approached by a stranger willing to pay him for a courier job to Lisbon. Meanwhile, a young Brazilian woman named Alex (Fernanda Torres) is selling her passport to crooks in a Lisbon cafe, while her junkie boyfriend gets in deep with his underworld confreres.

Shot in inky black and white, the film is a good deal more entertaining than the publicity notes would have you believe ("Racism... and the universal hopelessness of a whole generation are the underlying themes of Foreign Land". Blimey!). In fact, it's a melodrama of exile whose plotlines eventually converge and gather speed; by the end I was happily enthralled in a tenebrous thriller of cross-country chases and leering villains. Whether this spearheads a renaissance in Brazilian film-making is difficult to say (it was actually made in 1995), but there's an impressive confidence at work here.

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