Two Out of Five Ain't Bad

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WORKING GIRL

Directed by Mike Nichols

Screenplay by Kevin Wade

In the steno pool at the brokerage where she works, Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith) might catch a male executive's eye for a few priapic seconds. Would she accompany him to his office for some fast dictation? She would not. Tess may chafe at pushing 30, at fetching coffee for dimmer minds with smoother styles, but she will not be used. And now she has a plan. Her new boss is chic Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver), who has it all and wants more. Katharine can flirt suavely with clients -- "I'll buy you a drink. Bottle of Cristal? Two straws?" -- and steal ideas from brainy losers like Tess. Well, if Tess can't beat Katharine, she will become her. While Katharine recovers from a ski injury, Tess dresses in her boss's clothes, coifs herself in "serious hair," drops her voice one take-charge octave. Voila! The Staten Island missy is a Park Avenue Ms.

Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford), a junior exec at another brokerage, is darned impressed. Here is a woman "who dresses like a woman and not like a woman dressed like she thinks a man would dress if he were a woman." Soon he and Tess are partners, hatching a big merger and pretending that a man and a woman can work closely without feeling the crackle of erotic tension. No can do, at least in the business of romantic comedy. Kevin Wade shows this in his smart screenplay, which is full of the atmospheric pressures that allow stars to collide. Director Mike Nichols knows this in his bones. He encourages Weaver to play (brilliantly) an airy shrew. He gives Ford a boyish buoyancy and Griffith the chance to be a grownup mesmerizer. When Tess and Jack kiss, Nichols has Griffith kick one leg back in the old-fashioned signal of innocent lust.

From this moment, you know that Working Girl is a fond anthology of old Hollywood's romantic comedies. The film's plot may parse like All About Eve from the scheming Eve's point of view, but its heart is with every '30s heroine who must conquer class prejudice -- with wit, charm, bravado and a little larceny -- before she can win the nice guy away from the mapcap heiress. At first, Griffith's pudginess and baby-doll voice appear to disqualify her from the company of Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur and other down- to-earth goddesses of the golden age. But as she slims into executive shape, she grows in the role until finally she is captivating enough to be entrusted with a company merger or a big-budget film. Another Katharine (Hepburn) played another Tess (Harding) in a 1942 comedy about a trailblazing career gal. Like her, Griffith's Tess McGill is a Woman of the Year.

Or maybe the Woman of the Future. For Nichols' film is also as modern as the 21st century challenge that faces America. How will the working class be educated to survive and thrive in the computer age? This intoxicating movie has an answer: let her strut her outer-borough wisdom from Wall Street to the Pacific Rim. Watch her fatten portfolios as she melts hearts. With working girls like Tess, America ain't down yet. -- Richard Corliss

RAIN MAN

Directed by Barry Levinson; Screenplay by Ronald Bass and Barry Morrow

The publicity pushes all the right buttons. "The unlimited potential of the human spirit" is evoked; the word heartwarming is bandied about. And indeed the film's plot profile is indistinguishable from that of a disease-of- the-month TV movie. But partly because director Barry Levinson (Good Morning, Vietnam) aspires to a more conscientious art, partly because he has chosen to examine one of the least tractable and most enigmatic forms of mental illness, Rain Man simply refuses to function sentimentally.

Cunning, cynical young Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) learns he has been cut out of his father's $3 million estate, which has gone to an older brother, Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), whom he did not know existed. Ray has long been institutionalized because he is an autistic savant. He has a genius for instant mathematical calculation, but he keeps reality and affection at bay by piling barricades of useless information around himself and by insisting, maddeningly, monotonously, monomaniacally, that certain routines, involving meals and TV viewing, be rigorously observed. Charlie abducts him, hoping to gain control of his inheritance, and they set off by car on a cross-country odyssey -- each in his way a manchild in an unpromising landscape.

The situation triggers certain expectations. Surely responsibility -- and the workings of the popular belief that mental illness can be a form of saintliness -- will make Charlie a better, more caring person. And perhaps, freed of institutional constraints, warmed by fraternal bonding, Raymond may get better, since that too is a convention of this kind of drama.

You win some, you lose some. Charlie does develop a guardedly expressed conscience. Though he exploits Ray's head for figures to make a killing in Las Vegas, he ends up believing his brother would be better off with him than in the asylum, and fighting, on principle, for custody. Yet Hoffman's meticulously observed performance makes it clear that Ray's is truly a hopeless case. Yes, he could become a kind of living pull toy for his brother, flapping and clacking in his wake. Yes, they could continue playing what they have played in this film: a comedy of frustration that has its bleakly funny moments. But a cure, restoration to full human function? That's not on.

This honest rejection of fraudulently uplifting sentiment is admirable in a way. But Rain Man's restraint is, finally, rather like Raymond's gabble. It discourages connections, keeping you out instead of drawing you in. -- Richard Schickel

TALK RADIO

Directed by Oliver Stone; Screenplay by Eric Bogosian and Oliver Stone

Good evening, agony fans. Time for another thrilling episode with Barry Champlain (Eric Bogosian). For two hours a night, this talk-show host spits out opinions, croons insults, talks people off the suicide ledge of despondency, seduces and then abandons his listeners. Got a personal problem? Barry will mock it. Afraid of blacks, Jews, gays? Barry will make sure you're more afraid of him. Or maybe you just love him. Don't try: "Nothing more boring than people who love you." And when Barry is bored, he cuts off your lifeline -- hangs up on you. Remember, folks: "Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words cause permanent damage."

Playing another radio host, Robin Williams spun this voluptuous sort of word web for maybe 15 minutes in Good Morning, Vietnam and won an Oscar nomination. What does Bogosian deserve? For most of this engrossing, infuriating movie, he sits in a radio studio and just talks, a shaman sparking his listeners' minds around the communal campfire. It is a spellbinding turn.

Bogosian wrote and played this role last year off-Broadway, and when he sticks to the old script, he brings the thing to life onscreen. So, at first, does director Oliver Stone. He makes a voice in the dark seem a perfect subject for motion pictures. The camera prowls with a purpose; the movie gleams like Formica lighted by witchcraft.

The play had a point: in America agony is just show biz, life-and-death issues are matters of style, and even the most desperate night callers seek sleazy entertainment, not salvation. But Stone wants more. In Salvador and Platoon he found drama to match his message; here he must invent tragedy to suit his spleen. He moves Barry from Cleveland to Dallas and appropriates the murder of Denver radio host Alan Berg -- a little silver anniversary present to the Kennedy-assassination city. Stone's camera closes in on Bogosian's face as if it were the cratered moonscape of the American mind, and the actor / starts shouting into his megaphone mike. Finally, these two have become like Barry's listeners, shrill and unconvincing, weaving their own conspiracy theories in the bleat of the night. This is bag-lady cinema. -- R.C.

MY STEPMOTHER IS AN ALIEN

Directed by Richard Benjamin; Screenplay by Jerico Weingrod, Herschel Weingrod, Timothy Harris and Jonathan Reynolds

Suppose E.T. had not been a sweet-tempered little brown guy. Suppose, instead, he had been a sweet-tempered woman built like a movie star -- Kim Basinger, say. On the face and figure of it, there is something to be said for this switcheroo. All right, she seems to be on a battery-acid diet and needs instructions on matters as diverse as earthling sexual practices and the historical significance of Jimmy Durante. Nobody's perfect. But Celeste is a willing learner, and Dr. Steve Mills (Dan Aykroyd), the widower, father and scientist on whose signal into outer space she beamed down, is an eager, bedazzled teacher.

There is one miscalculation -- a libidinous brother, heavily played by Jon Lovitz -- but it is ultimately redeemed by the four dab hands who wrote this comedy. Richard Benjamin has directed a pleasant holiday surprise. The fable is sweet without being cloying, light without being too airy, suspenseful and sexy without being so much so that a parent has to distract himself with a lot of guidance. R.S.

TEQUILA SUNRISE

Directed and Written by Robert Towne

Dale McKussic (Mel Gibson) is your basic existential hero of the California '80s: humanist hunk, thoughtful father, loyal friend, gentle lover and, oh, yes, a cocaine dealer. Now he wants to retire -- no pension, thank you, but no penance either. No police heat courtesy of an old-buddy cop (Kurt Russell). And no mortal wounds from rival coke kingpins or Mexican comandantes (Raul Julia). Just a cozy table for two with a hard-to-get restaurateur (Michelle Pfeiffer) who chirps skepticism like a tequila mockingbird.

Robert Towne's plot recalls the old James Cagney melodramas in which righteous Pat O'Brien fought for his soul and rotten Humphrey Bogart tried to perforate his body. But the moral is utterly today: it's about going straight without paying the price. As handsome and slack muscled as a surfer past his prime, the movie renounces ambiguity for confusion. In the end, like an old set of tires or a frayed friendship, Tequila Sunrise just wears out. -- R.C.