Fired up with a shot of David Lynch

Self-indulgent to the point of pottiness, 'Trigger Happy' still scores, thanks to Jeff Goldblum, Gabriel Byrne and Richard Dreyfuss; CINEMA

Led Blindfold and unbriefed into a screening of Trigger Happy (15), you might reasonably assume that it was a product of one of David Lynch's more conservative reveries: it's a kind of skewed, deadpan-comedy version of a 1940s gangster flick, as imagined by someone on holiday from the planet Neptune. (The film opens in deep space, with vistas of swirling galaxies and intimations that we are entering an alternative universe.) There are certainly enough signs that the Lynch mob has been at work: the cinematographer is Frank Byers, who worked as Director of Photography on Twin Peaks, and Kyle MacLachlan, Agent Cooper from that series, plays the part of a thug who purports to be suffering from angina - or, as one of his colleagues tauntingly miscalls it, "vagina".

In fact, it is the first film to be written and directed by the actor Larry Bishop, who is the son of the comedian Joey Bishop, a member of Frank Sinatra's "Rat Pack" alongside Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr, and Trigger Happy is in part a hallucinatory reminscence of that boozy hipster's milieu. Considered as a piece of narrative architecture, Bishop's script is an impos- sible folly. If you could be bothered to follow the plot, as few will, you'd probably discover that it doesn't make a lick of sense. Line by line, though, it's uncharacteristically well-written, or at any rate ostentatiously written, with a tangy mixture of profanity and pedantry that's more common on the contemporary stage than in the cinema - there aren't many film scripts in which the usual four-lettered staples rub up against such words as "ennui", "conniption fit", "coop dee grayse" and "integrated personality".

The last of these terms is applied to Vic (Richard Dreyfuss), a much- dreaded gangster boss whose psyche is anything but integrated. During his stay in the local mental hospital, it has splintered into so many paranoid fragments that the authorities have had to stagger their release. As the film opens, various underling villains are sitting around contemplating Vic's imminent reappearance, chief among them Mick (Jeff Goldblum), who's been having an affair with Vic's girlfriend Grace (Diane Lane) by day and Grace's sister Rita (Ellen Barkin) by night, and Ben London (Gabriel Byrne), a babbling bar-room philosopher who likes to refer to himself as Zen Ben.

Vic's return sets off a dynastic war, fought for the most part in ritual duels, heavy on the eyeball close-ups, in which the antagonists boldly discard surplus ammunition and trade salty quips before seeing who is quickest on the draw. But the most intense of its confrontations is more formal than bloody: at Vic's Welcome Home party, Zen Ben brings Paul Anka on to the stage to sing "My Way", and then starts to add his own suicidally daring variations on the lyrics. At least one of Vic's personalities is not too pleased about this, and the outcome is unsightly. (As are many other scenes: "I guess you never know the size of a person's brain until you've swept it up off the carpet," muses one character.)

Self-indulgent to the point of pottiness as he can be, at least Bishop has the decency to be entertaining, and in Trigger Happy he's coaxed some gratifyingly funny performances from all his leads - Goldblum at his most suavely distracted, Byrne like a music-hall warm-up man on the skids, and Dreyfuss, haughtily patrician in his dementia. In a stronger week, Trigger Happy would be a minor novelty; in this week's dead zone, it has the glitter of a gem, albeit one that could well be made of paste.

The latest toothless Whoopi Goldberg vehicle, The Associate (PG), is so much more competent than the last few toothless Whoopi Golderg vehicles that there are moments when it aspires to the condition of adequacy. Very mildly feminist - somewhere around the Working Girl level of militancy, let's say - Donald Petrie's film is a farce about a brilliant financial analyst (Ms G) who, finding herself blocked and patronised by the man's man's world of Wall Street, invents an imaginary male business partner called Mr Cutty, takes the stock market by storm and then, with the help of a latex makeover, is obliged to pose as her imaginary colleague. (Plump, pale and pony-tailed, she looks exactly like the latter-day Marlon Brando.) Minus points: a script so exceptionally predictable that you begin to ponder a new career as a crystal gazer. Plus points: a rather inventive urination joke, and an agreeable minor role for the Cheers alumna Bebe Neuwirth, aka Lillith, most fetching in her costly undergarments. Dash it, there go the sensitivity credentials.

A rather more diverting movie about fillies dressed as chaps and vice versa (or, as the publicity blurb puts it, "examining sexual identity and gender stereotypes"; hmm, yes, that should keep the box-office hopping) is The Square Circle (15), directed by Amol Palekar from a screenplay by Timeri N Murari. Nominated as one of the 10 best films of 1996 by Time magazine, which may be pushing the praise a touch too far, it's an entertaining and - despite some ghastly scenes of rape and a last-reel murder - unusually sweet-natured film. Its nameless heroine (Sonali Kulkarni), a simple, village bride-to-be, is kidnapped by brothel keepers, escapes, suffers at the hands of westernised hoodlums, and then forms a tentative alliance with a wandering actor (Nirmal Pandey), who likes to play women's roles in real life as well as before the playing public. Cropping her hair and wearing trousers for safety, the Kulkarni character becomes the husband and he the wife of an odd couple. Their wanderings are told in a motley set of styles, from documentary realism to incongruous but quite beguiling musical fantasy - considerably closer, whatever anyone is saying, to Hollywood than to Satyajit Ray.

Scott Silver's debut feature Johns (18), made on a pauper's budget, observes all four neo-classical unities: Time (Christmas Eve), Place (Santa Monica Boulevard), Action (desperately seeking dosh) and Gimmick (boy prostitution). For all its self-conscious griminess and penchant for sniffing around the sun-baked gutters, it seldom seems to be about very much more than the gangly, jittering body language of its two adolescent leads, David Arquette and Lukas Haas, and Silver's sense of irony tends towards the facile; violent beatings juxtaposed with Jingle Bells on the soundtrack, you know the sort of thing. Even so, it has an adequate quota of amusements both coarse and subtle - Elliott Gould, one of several token stars, is on ripe form as a wealthy, possessive "date" - and it's a fair bit more watchable than the product with more money than sense. Speaking of which ...

Students of the semiotics of title credits have established that the words "Charlie Sheen" can usually be taken to signify "better stay home and order in a takeaway". This week's incitement to chicken korma is Shadow Conspiracy (15), in which Mr Sheen, playing some sort of spin doctor to the President of the United States, blunders across a dastardly plot to kill his boss by means of a toy helicopter armed with machine guns - an old trick, but it might just work - and runs around a lot sweating in his suit. Sheen is presumably meant to be a sharp cookie, though he remains blind to clues that wouldn't have foxed Homer Simpson, and is clumsy into the bargain. Anyway, hard on his heels is a reptilian hit-man who, presumably so as to remain inconspicuous, wears a gleaming white ankle-length raincoat in all weathers, and ... oh, the hell with this rubbish. I quit.

No, I really do quit. After a year or so of sitting in the dark watching imaginary people getting into trouble and making fools of themselves, I am now off to a new job which will mostly consist of getting into trouble and making a fool of myself. My thanks to everyone who been courteous enough to write in appreciation of the column, especially my witty lesbian correspondent in Walthamstow. To those who wrote in less kindly vein, some deathless words of wisdom from a man who had earned the right to say them: it's only a movie, Ingrid.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 15.

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