A HANDY equation for Hollywood comedies: the degree to which an apparently irredeemable character exhibits non-PC sentiments in the opening reel is invariably in direct proportion to the sentimental claptrap said character will be spouting come the end of the popcorn. And so it goes with Jack Nicholson's foul-mouthed, obsessive-compulsive novelist, Melvin Udall. He can't stand his homosexual artist neighbour, Simon (Greg Kinnear), dines out with sterilised cutlery, and demands to be served by the same waitress, Carol (Helen Hunt) each time he visits his favourite restaurant.
Udall's belligerent tirades are lent a degree of comic force by Nicholson's typically showy performance, but the rest of the screenplay works overtime to atone for Udall's misanthropy. Carol, as a single mother burdened with an ill child, is saved from a ghastly canonisation only by Helen Hunt's excellent performance, while Simon seems to function solely as a second gauge by which to judge Udall's prejudices. Against this background, the developing relationship between Melvin and Carol may be inevitable, but it's no less ludicrous
In the Company of Men (18), available to rent from next Wednesday
WHAT IS really disturbing about Neil Labute's black comedy isn't the viciousness of its male protagonists' project - Chad and Howard plan to destroy a woman to avenge what they perceive as female treachery in the bedroom and the boardroom - but the mundanity that Labute divines in their actions. Ball-busting Chad (Aaron Eckhart) and timid Howard (Matt Malloy) bitch and brag their way around their almost exclusively male office, indulging in the kind of macho posturing that finds its apotheosis in their plans for Christine (Stacy Edwards), a vulnerable, deaf temp. Chad and Howard plan to romance her simultaneously and then dump her after six weeks.
Labute's coup, though, is to approach this nasty menage a trois in the manner of an anthropological study. The director breaks his own screenplay up into six acts, punctuating each with a burst of thunderous drums. The alpha male, common office variety, is ruthlessly satirised, yet the universal quality of the screenplay - we don't know anyone's surnames or which town we're in - is a reminder that conversations not unlike these are taking place at a photocopier near you. If there is a weakness, Christine's character, benign and idealised, is something of a cipher - only at the conclusion does the film consider her isolation from her suitors.
Jackie Brown (18), available to rent from Monday
IT'S UNLIKELY that you'll find posters for Tarantino's latest feature adorning student bedrooms in the way those for Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction have for most of this decade. In fact, apart from the continuing attention given to slick dialogue, a wonderful soundtrack and narrative sleight-of-hand, Jackie Brown feels like the director's attempt to escape his own legacy.
Adapted from Elmore Leonard's Rum Punch, the film centres on the attempts of the eponymous 44-year-old air stewardess (Pam Grier) to fleece the gun-runner (Samuel L Jackson) for whom she moonlights, and the police, who have coerced her into informing on her boss. Her accomplice is fiftysomething bail bondsmen, Max Cherry (Robert Forster), and it's a nice irony that, like the last chance middle-aged Max and Jackie seize, B-movie regulars Grier and Forster make the most of their lead roles. While handling the tension of the sting well, Tarantino reveals a sensitivity for character that has always distinguished Leonard's books but which has been absent from the director's work. Jackie Brown's minor figures - Bridget Fonda's fading surf chick in particular - justify the trip to the video store alone.