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Flings, First and Final

Two new romances approach doomed passion, as seen at different ages and stages

Fans of the book might be surprised that Eastwood has brought the Kincaid character out of the realm of brawny-and-brainy-sex-god and made him into a flesh-and-blood person with flaws and fears -- an overgrown kid whose "philosophy" of total independence is obviously a cover for his intense loneliness.

Eastwood's work as an actor here, taken together with his performances in Unforgiven and In the Line of Fire, forms an improbably moving triptych about the aging of a legendary tough guy. He's opened up in the last few years, become more vulnerable, more lost and more willing to reveal uncertainty and alienation. This is the second movie in which he's cried on-screen, and the effect is still startling; it's as if one of the faces of Mount Rushmore suddenly began to weep.

As good as Eastwood is, Streep is even better. She put on about 30 pounds to play Francesca, and she's been given a wardrobe, makeup and hairstyle befitting the part -- rural immigrant housewife circa 1965 -- but she never seems drab or ordinary. Other than Karen Silkwood, this is the earthiest, sexiest part she's ever played, and she inhabits it completely. Without overstressing the point, she lets you see that Francesca's devotion to her family represents a far more impressive show of bravery than any of Kincaid's globetrotting adventures. And when she looks at Kincaid with lust in her eyes, she might remind you of Anna Magnani in The Rose Tattoo -- a reserved woman whose inner life is charged with wit, energy and sensual longing. More so than the novel, Bridges establishes the narrative as Francesca's story. It's about bliss embraced and then rejected, and about the emotional toll taken on a woman who made that choice.

In a popular melodrama full of brave filmmaking choices, Eastwood's gutsiest was his decision to follow Francesca after her romance -- to give us an extended glimpse of life post-Kincaid. Like the final 20 minutes of The Shawshank Redemption, the end of Bridges is so unusual and affecting that it's almost eerie: we're watching the parts of life that movies rarely deem interesting enough to record. This is one of the most confidently directed movies of Clint Eastwood's distinguished career, and easily one of the most intelligent and engrossing films of 1995. It's a romance for grownups.

If Bridges is a quiet torch song for autumn lovers, then Mad Love is its generational antipode: a screeching, lurching, reckless chunk of grunge metal. Its hero is a sweet-faced, slightly bland young man named Matt Leland (Chris O'Donnell) who lives in a big, old, cluttered lake house with his dad (Kevin Dunn) and a couple of twins, a brother and sister. He's the caretaker of his siblings because pop is always wrapped up in his work and his mom flew the coop when he was nine. He's got heavy burdens for a high school senior, and though he seems to be bearing up pretty well, he suffers from anxiousness and insomnia.

The film begins with Matt embroiled in his late-night routine, which consists of his standing near the window of his upstairs bedroom and peering out at the lake below through a telescope. He sees motion on the water: it's a perky blond teenage girl going for a moonlit ride on a jet ski, tearing across the waves like Aphrodite in a gasoline-fired seashell. Matt is hooked, and when he realizes that this gorgeous apparition is named Casey Roberts (Drew Barrymore), that she goes to his high school and that she lives right across the lake from him, he can hardly believe his good fortune.

Casey is a wild child, as unpredictable and quirky as Matt is safe and normal. She's got a slightly tawdry mouth, she smokes and drinks, and she's fond of following sudden, irresponsible inspirations -- like tripping a fire alarm to get Matt out of an SAT exam and into a cross-town school-cutting trip in her VW bug. They fall instantly into an all-consuming affair that seems to have more to do with the chemistry of testosterone and estrogen than with any true meeting of minds.

Casey's folks -- detached, hypereducated highbrow types -- forbid Matt to have contact with her anymore. And for good reason, we find out later: Casey has suffered severe emotional problems since childhood, and her self-destructive streak has forced her folks to move from one city to the next in search of fresh beginnings.

When Casey is hospitalized after a suicide attempt, Matt impulsively busts her out, and they go on a trip into the American Southwest. They play blindman's buff with a truck, have wild sex in cheap rooms, steal cars and wallets to keep themselves moving, and otherwise postpone dealing with the consequences of their actions. You see liberating road adventures all over the place these days; you can only watch two attractive stars break the speed limit while whooping and throwing their hands in the air so many times before dejà vu sets in. In Mad Love's case, it's not the material itself that's irritating, but that the filmmakers seem to have embraced it in order to visually "open up" a romantic melodrama that was already plenty interesting.

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