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Talked to Death

Headline:Faithful proves too true to the play that birthed it

Anyone searching for a definition of the term "canned theater" need look no further than Faithful. Despite some profanely funny dialogue and three strong lead performances, this all-too-faithful adaptation of a stage play by actor/writer Chazz Palminteri adamantly refuses to spring to life as a film. Palminteri, doing double duty as screenwriter and co-star, and director Paul Mazursky have made only token efforts to "open up" the black comedy about a depressed rich woman (Cher) and the hit man (Palminteri) hired by her husband (Ryan O'Neal) to kill her. As a result, this determinedly offbeat effort too often seems talky and static, repeatedly -- and distractingly -- emphasizing its theatrical origins.

In her first movie role since Mermaids, Cher manages the difficult feat of appearing both haggard and beautiful all at once. She's well cast as Margaret O'Donnel, the neglected wife of a New York trucking-company owner who's having an affair with his much-younger secretary. When her husband Jack takes a business trip on the day of their 20th anniversary, Margaret turns suicidal. But before she can take an overdose of pills, she's interrupted by Tony, a hit man who immediately ties her to a living-room chair.

It appears at first that Tony intends to talk Margaret to death. But no, it turns out that he's only delaying the inevitable until he gets a call from Margaret's husband. Once Jack is far enough away to establish an alibi, he'll dial his home number, let the phone ring twice, then hang up. That will be Tony's signal to murder Margaret so that Jack can collect a $5 million insurance policy. (Why, the viewer may wonder, doesn't Tony kill Margaret immediately, while Jack is at his office in full view of witnesses who could confirm his alibi? Because then we wouldn't have a movie.)

The wait for the phone call leads to an hour or so of edgy give and take between captive and captor. Margaret and Tony converse on a wide variety of topics, covering everything from adultery (he insists that fellatio doesn't count as marital infidelity) to the relative merits of smooth and chunky peanut butter. The more they talk, the more Margaret realizes that she wants to live after all, if only to spite her husband.

Most of the time, Tony is antagonistic and sarcastic, especially when it comes to berating Margaret for remaining in a comfortable but loveless marriage for so long. ("Money takes away all of your problems," he snaps. "Then you have nothing left to do but look inside yourself, and see how fucked up you are!") But Tony, too, has his deep-rooted problems: he inadvertently caused the death of his sister during a mob-ordered hit. Occasionally, Tony interrupts his verbal sparring for a telephone consultation with his psychiatrist, played broadly by director Mazursky. But the shrink is of little help -- the best he can do is recommend that Tony read The Road Less Traveled.

It isn't terribly surprising that an erotic attraction develops between Margaret and Tony. Indeed, this twist will come as even less of a surprise if you've already seen one of two recent films with a strikingly similar plot: 1992's Diary of a Hit Man and last year's Bulletproof Heart. What is surprising is that right after Margaret and Tony get horizontal, Faithful abruptly shifts gears.

When Jack returns home, and tries very hard to disguise his surprise at finding Margaret alive, Mazursky seems to time-warp back to his glory days of the 1970s. All at once, his new film has the same intensity and emotional tone of his Blume in Love and An Unmarried Woman. In scenes that likely attracted Mazursky to the movie in the first place, Jack and Margaret pick over the carcass of their dead marriage through an extended dialogue that's packed with two decades of bitter resentment and broken promises. The writing, acting and direction are so splendid during this section of Faithful that it's a little disappointing when the hit man reappears to wrap up the plot.

Here and elsewhere, Ryan O'Neal serves notice that he has evolved into a first-rate character actor during his seven-year absence from movies. (His last major film was 1989's Chances Are.) It will be interesting to see if this performance, a skillful mix of arrogance and self-loathing, will lead to even meatier parts.

Cher has a trickier role, and has a more difficult time maneuvering through some much wilder mood swings. She's never less than credible. There are times, however, when her effort is obvious. As for Palminteri, he behaves with all the brio you might expect from a man who knows he has written a nifty role and some hilarious lines -- most of them unprintable -- for himself. (This is more or less the same performance Palminteri has given since A Bronx Tale, another film taken from one of his plays.) Even more than Cher, however, Palminteri is hard-pressed to make theatrically stylized dialogue sound like realistic conversation.

Reportedly, Mazursky clashed with his producers over the film's final cut, to the point of briefly threatening to remove his name from the credits. Presumably, since Mazursky continues to be billed as director (and co-star), he got his way, and Faithful is exactly the picture he intended to make. For better or worse.

Faithful. Directed by Paul Mazursky. With Cher, Chazz Palminteri, Ryan O'Neal and Amber Smith. Rated R. 91 minutes.

 
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