Film: Also Showing

Two Girls and a Guy James Toback (15) Stepmom Chris columbus (12) Very Bad Things Peter Berg (18) A Man and a Woman Claude Lelouch (PG)

THIS WEEK'S big theme: monogamy. James Toback's Two Girls and A Guy, shot in 11 days, promises heavy artillery but ends up a light skirmish. Two women stand on the doorstep of a SoHo loft waiting for their boyfriends to return. Desultory chat leads to confession, which in turn leads to discovery: they are waiting for one and the same man, an actor named Blake Allen. The feistier of the two, Lou (Natasha Gregson Wagner), breaks into his apartment and buzzes in Carla (Heather Graham); together they discuss him and wonder how long he's been duping them.

By the time the guy shows up, you're braced for something dreadful. The film certainly delivers on this: he's played by Robert Downey Jr. Once Blake has recovered from the shock of seeing his duplicity exploded, he spends the next hour trying to weasel his way out of trouble. The women don't hold back. As Lou tells him: "You are a lying, mugging, misogynistic, unemployable, short, loft inheriting, piece-of-shit fraud." Blake: "I'm short now, too, huh?"

While Toback tosses out the occasionally smart line, the film as a whole feels underwritten and meandering: there's plenty of rage here, but it's boxed into something resembling an actors' workshop. Downey has been let off the leash for this one, and practically tears himself in half as the egregious two-timer. His best efforts, however, can't rescue a scenario starved of oxygen and, come to think of it, plausibility.

Stepmom is Chris Columbus's latest homily, following Mrs Doubtfire and Nine Months, on the travails of parenting. This one's a three-way tussle between Jackie, a divorcee mom (Susan Sarandon), her ex-husband (Ed Harris), and his new girlfriend, Isabel (Julia Roberts), who's been having trouble bonding with Jackie and her two kids. You have to feel for Jackie, who must endure the galling realisation that her ex's squeeze is kind and beautiful and good-humoured; she also happens to be an absurdly glamorous photographer - the sort who breezes late into a shoot, calls out "That's a wrap" after 10 minutes and stands back to receive the plaudits - which gives you some idea about this film's grip on credibility.

Easy to understand why Roberts has a producer credit here, but Sarandon too? She's playing a tiresome whinger who's turned her children into spoilt brats. Then the penny drops: Jackie has cancer, and spends the second half of the movie bravely stifling tears, growing spectre-thin and handing out bite-size slices of Cracker Barrel wisdom. That it's mostly set in the fabulous opulence of Jackie's enormous clapboard mansion is par for the course. As Meet Joe Black recently demonstrated, Hollywood prefers the dying to maintain impeccable taste in home furnishings. Chris Columbus directs as if he's handling a moral diagram: Stepmom is so full of understanding it made me want to throw up.

Peter Berg, a first-time director, opens a thick vein of black humour in Very Bad Things, the story of a bachelor party that gets grotesquely out of hand. A bridegroom, Kyle (Jon Favreau), and four middle-class jock friends check into a Las Vegas hotel, and proceed to whoop it up on booze and cocaine (Christian Slater, as one of the party, must be thanking his stars - he now gets paid for doing all the stuff he's been convicted for). The mood of piggish debauchery suddenly goes very sober when their romp ends with a call-girl dead on the bathroom floor; a security guard who discovers the body is then beaten to death. Having dismembered the corpses and buried them in the desert, the five friends head back home for Kyle's wedding.

The film then sits tight and waits for the first one to crack, though by this point you may find it difficult to care. Aiming for the giddy gruesomeness of Shallow Grave, Berg piles one sadistic thrill on top of another without noticing how flat and charmless the whole enterprise feels. His basic ploy is to show five men yelling hysterically into each other's face, and hope that we'll find it funny. The cast do themselves no favours - Daniel Stern, required to do most of the freaking out, has fallen a long way since his wonderful turn in Diner. Cameron Diaz, a natural with light comedy, is stuck with an appalling role as the whiny, wedding- obsessed fiancee. Hard to know what on earth persuaded her: it surely wasn't the puerile, mirthless script.

Claude Lelouch's A Man and A Woman looks diminished since its release in 1966. Irony has kicked out innocence, and modern audiences will probably snigger at what now seem the corny staples of romantic French movies: a wide beach, a dashing fellow in a sports car, a train station swathed in mist. Advertising, if not cinema, colonised these images long ago. Yet how to resist a pairing as photogenic as Anouk Aimee and Jean-Louis Trintignant? She plays the widow, haunted and gravely beautiful; he is the racing driver smitten by her. (His ratty handsomeness recalls something of Bogart). As I sighed at this flimsy confection, I couldn't take my eyes off either of them.


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