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Flings, First and Final

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

Screenwriter Paula Milne and director Antonia Bird have an intuitive feel for how real teenagers talk -- in groping, circular musings that invariably strike the speaker as being terrifically profound -- and they deploy loud, raw pop songs like a hormone-addled Greek chorus that urges the lovers on to one emotional and carnal climax after another.

Sitting through Mad Love will probably bring back painful high school memories for many viewers. At its best, the film recaptures the frantic, racing pulse-beat of first love, first sex and first disillusionment, and it manages to get inside its characters' skins without losing track of how small, banal and doomed they are. It puts Matt and Casey in perspective without condescending to them.

O'Donnell has always been a question mark with me. I can never tell if he's a young Robert Redford in the making or the next Emilio Estevez. As Matt, he's saddled with an almost completely reactive character, and he underplays him to the point of absurdity. Sometimes Barrymore will be embroiled in the most painful of predicaments, and O'Donnell's face as he watches her suggests he's taking part in some kind of perversely dispassionate sociology experiment: take a crazy girl out on the road, observe her breakdowns, then write a 20-page paper with footnotes. The part needed a believably average guy, but it also needed somebody with hints of inner torment. As likable as he is, there's little in O'Donnell's performance to suggest what demons drove Matt to so drastically upend his life.

Fortunately, Barrymore is so furiously alive that we understand why Matt fell for her. She's specialized in this sort of part ever since her 1992 double dose of adolescent twistedness, Guncrazy and Poison Ivy; it's the kind of character who's only convincing when played by a young actress with heart, guts and inspiration, and Barrymore has all three in spades. It also helps that she's got the body of a jailbait hooker and the doe-eyed, sweetly rounded face of a silent-movie heroine. The combination makes it easy for her to play wounded old souls trapped inside girlish personalities -- teen angels fallen from grace.

She's effective when she's flirting and taunting and pouting, and she's equally good during Casey's apocalyptic seizures of fear, self-loathing and paranoia. But the movie keeps cutting the legs out from under Barrymore's performance by refusing to elucidate the nature of Casey's mental illness. She certainly displays some of the characteristics of an incest survivor, but the details pointing to this conclusion are spotty, almost as if the film was gutted after unfavorable test-screenings.

One such detail is found in a sensationally effective montage near the end that stitches shots together in a Freudian rebus of sexual fear. While Matt goes inside a small-town secondhand shop to buy Casey a new dress, Casey sits on the curb outside smoking a cigarette. In a series of claustrophobic first-person close-ups backed with suggestively distorted sound effects and dialogue, her attention shifts between a group of children at play and a bunch of tough-looking workmen loitering outside a nearby bar who are loudly discussing her physical attributes.

Director Bird crosscuts with increasing speed, building tension through tightening visual patterns. Alfred Hitchcock did this sort of thing all the time, and he rarely did it better. The sequence ends with Casey watching in horror as an employee inside the secondhand shop pulls a gown up over a mannequin's head. Casey freaks out, and the next time we see her, she's sitting on a hotel room floor late that night as Matt sleeps, obsessively cutting the eyes out of magazine advertisements and taping them on the walls.

Mad Love ends as we knew it had to end -- with Matt realizing that by abandoning his responsibility to his family to start a new life with Casey he has unwittingly taken on a far greater responsibility. With regret, he takes her back to her family. His decision feels less like a restoration of order than abandonment: Casey has been returned to a life of heavy sedation and institutionalization, but Matt has returned to a loving family and a bright future -- provided he can make up his SATs. She's lost everything, and he has lost nothing.

That's profoundly galling. The rules of cathartic tearjerking demand that Matt's heart should have been ripped out and scattered to the winds along with ours. He should have been transformed by his experience -- hardened, deepened. As we look at Matt without Casey, we should weep with helpless rage, then return to the theater next weekend to cry all over again. But the doughy resignation in O'Donnell's eyes suggests that once Casey has disappeared inside the mental hospital, she'll fade in emotional status from the great lost love of his life to a momentary lapse in judgment.

You can almost see him at a party 20 years from now -- an executive with a nondescriptly pretty wife on his arm and a wallet filled with pictures of his kids, telling his buddies, "Yeah, I've sure dated some crazy women in my time. How about you?"

The Bridges of Madison County. Directed by Clint Eastwood. With Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep.

Rated PG-13.
135 minutes.

Mad Love. Directed by Antonia Bird. With Drew Barrymore and Chris O'Donnell.
Rated PG-13.
99 minutes.

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