FILM / Idle thoughts and passing interests: Slackers Richard Linklater (US); This Is My Life (12) Nora Ephron (US); Thousand Pieces of Gold (no cert) Nancy Kelly (US)

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How curious that Richard Linklater's Slacker should prove to be about bone- idle ne'er-do-wells in their early twenties; it's a bit like making a film about adulterers called Cad, or about con men entitled Absolute Bounder. Still, the Edwardian connotations have not kept the film from reaching a sizeable audience in the States, where it has been credited with identifying a fresh slice of the demographic pie charts.

Appropriately, Slacker has taken three years to dawdle its way across the Atlantic, and has gone a trifle stale in the meantime thanks to extensive hype in the rock press and elsewhere. Shot on a negligible budget and employing a cast of more than 100 amateurs, it is less a conventional story than a flaneur's stroll around the streets, coffee shops and bookstores of Austin, Texas, a college town in which the locals make up for being over-educated by being immensely under-motivated.

Most of its action is knitted together by the device John Sayles used in City of Hope - a new scene begins every time new characters pass through the frame, the camera following them until yet another group arrives. In City of Hope, this knitting pattern plainly served Sayles' social theme, acting as a visual corroboration of his view that no man, woman nor child is an island. In Slacker, the trick is more like a mimicking of its characters' detachment and limited attention spans: everything is mildly interesting, mildly amusing or mildly disturbing.

The results can be mildly boring, though there are funny passages: the woman who responds to the apology 'Sorry I'm late' with 'That's OK, time doesn't exist'; the JFK assassination theorist writing a book called Profiles in Cowardice; the woman who tries to sell Madonna's pap smear. But the best creation in Slacker isn't a feckless youth at all: he's an ageing anarchist who tells whoppers about fighting in Spain with Orwell. For a giddy moment the film teeters on the edge of providing substance, and hints that Linklater may have a lot to offer when his idling years are done.

The sloth of This Is My Life is of a more familiar kind: that dogged unoriginality which dresses routine comedy up in regulation tear- jerking and expects us to swoon at the results. Nora Ephron (Heartburn, When Harry Met Sally) co- writes and directs, and tries to derive her yocks from the tale of Dottie (Julie Kavner) - a single parent who launches herself on a successful career as a stand-up comic - and her sobs from Dottie's two young daughters, who soon feel neglected despite the big hugs she gives them at five- minute intervals.

The strike rate for gags isn't high, largely because Dottie's supposedly dazzling stage act is pretty lame, and the off-stage quips are mostly at the level of 'the audiences were so dead they were wearing toe-tags'. The child actors are good, though (and the idea of a junior school staging a musical version of Eliot's 'The Hollow Men' is fun); they can make the film seem quite bearable until another one of Carly Simon's ghastly songs clumps on to the soundtrack. Sample lyric: 'I love Lucy and pumpernickel bread . . .' The prosecution rests.

A higher class of sentiment is on show in Thousand Pieces of Gold, which is set in Idaho during the Gold Rush and follows the travails of a young Chinese girl, Lalu, after she is sold into near- prostitution by her impoverished family. Nancy Kelly's film loads the ideological dice a bit by having a bunch of grungy prospectors as the main representatives of Western civilization, but a second of Rosalind Chao's quiet performance is more affecting than all of Norah Ephron's group hugs bundled together.

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