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There's a happy ending to A Pyromaniac's Love Story; this film is a fairy tale after all, albeit a modernized, live action version of Fractured Fairy Tales that's heavy on the schmaltz. You wouldn't expect anything else from a film that follows its opening credits with flowery calligraphy that leads into the story with "Once upon a time...." What's pleasantly surprising is how clever the execution is, making good use of exaggerated reality but never straying far enough off the track to alienate the audience.

While A Pyromaniac's Love Story initially seems to be the love story of Sergio (John Leguizamo) -- the film's narrator -- it's actually three love stories. A low-paid assistant at Linzer's (a pastry shop in the charmingly ethnic Kensington district of Toronto, Canada, though the actual city is never mentioned by name, perhaps to maintain its fairy tale distance), Sergio is so smitten with a waitress named Hattie (Sadie Frost) that he sometimes forgets to breathe; unfortunately, their relationship seems stuck at a friendship level. The errant son of a wealthy corporate businessman, Garet (William Baldwin) can't seem to find a way to express his love for Stephanie (Erika Eleniak), a debutante who enjoys playing bitchy little games. In contrast to the unrealized young love situations is the relationship of the elderly Mr. Linzer (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his wife (Joan Plowright); their marriage seems to be failing as much as business at their pastry shop.

It's that lack of business that gets the film rolling: Mr. Linzer asks Sergio to torch the shop, hoping to make some profit off the insurance, and promising Sergio a payment that will allow him to whisk Hattie off on the adventures she desires. The day after Linzer makes his request, the shop does go up in flames; who actually sets the fire, though, isn't clear at first. Everyone seems to want to take credit for the job, for a variety of reasons. Eventually the real arsonist turns himself in, but that's not really the point. The point is the trio of love stories, which the flames cause to collide, resulting in transferring roles, a love square and madcap mix-ups that are more keenly orchestrated than chaotic.

Part of the charm in these romantic tales is the way that the genders are initially portrayed. Sergio and Garet plod about drunk with love, sentimental weaklings who will do just about anything to show the depth of their emotions; the off-kilter Garet may occasionally prattle on about how women are evil and such, but nobody, including himself, ever buys into it. Hattie and Stephanie may be sweet, but both possess a certain "flair" that turns them into physical powerhouses; there's no question that both have total dominance over puppy-dogs Sergio and Garet, although only Stephanie exploits it.

Characters in fairy tales are almost always stereotypes, and this is the case in A Pyromaniac's Love Story. As a result, any discussion of character development and such is absurd. What's important is how well the actors and actresses maintain their roles, and make moot any issues of reality or non-reality. The talent involved in this film may be from Hollywood's B-list -- at least in marketability -- but they prove more than adequate. A Pyromaniac's Love Story further proves what Carlito's Way suggested: John Leguizamo is much better suited to film than such TV-ego projects as his unfunny House of Buggin'. This movie also suggests that William Baldwin has a true knack for comedy; he has as much goofiness here as older brother Alec has lead (as in "seriousness," not the weight which seems to be dragging Alec Baldwin's career to the bottom of the ocean). And it's nice to see Erika Eleniak, former Playboy Playmate and Baywatch star, in a role in which she isn't so much naked as sexy. However, the real attention grabber is up-and-comer Frost, whose tough cookie is endearingly sweet, even when her waitress character is strangling a perverted male customer.

Director Joshua Brand films the quirky material of A Pyromaniac's Love Story in a similar fashion to his work on Northern Exposure: subtle, straightforward shots with an aberration here or there. The lack of distracting camera angles provides a perfect format for writer Morgan Ward's twisting, play-like plot. And blessedly, a syrupy pop song soundtrack wasn't tacked on to the film; instead, compositions by Rachel Portman grace it, and heighten the fairy tale aspect.

The one thing that's not exaggerated in A Pyromaniac's Love Story is love; the fire that burns inside people and makes them do stupid things (especially men, for some reason) can't be physically manifested in our reality. It's intangible, and descriptions and expressions can't do it justice. A disarmingly sweet fable (and date movie) that yanks at your heartstrings, A Pyromaniac's Love Story stretches reality just enough to smartly show how frustrating this aspect of love can be and, at the same time, makes you believe in "happily ever after."

A Pyromaniac's Love Story.
Directed by Joshua Brand. With John Leguizamo, William Baldwin, Sadie Frost and Erika Eleniak.

Rated PG.
96 minutes.

 
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