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Where Angels Fear to Tread

Matthew Perry goes from a small-screen friend to a big-screen fool

You'd think that after more than a decade in this business, I'd have learned one simple, sanity-preserving rule: January and February are good times for taking a vacation -- very good times. Not because the airfares are low or the weather sucks, but because what a critic must endure at the beginning of the year is so grim. It is almost impossible to maintain any semblance of optimism about Hollywood -- or even the human race in general -- on a diet of the condemned swill that distributors unleash into unsuspecting multiplexes in the dead months after the Christmas-to-New Year's orgy of "quality" releases.

I realize I'm mixing metaphors -- Sated by Orgy, Innocent Theaters Threatened by Torrent of Unshackled Swill! I mean, exactly how would you shackle swill? It would just dribble out of its bonds. But the finely tuned bioelectrical machine nestled between my ears has been shorted out by the rapid one-two punch of Fools Rush In and Dangerous Ground. It had already suffered some static damage from Dante's Peak, but that was a mere dry run for the pure, well, crap showing up this week.

Fools Rush In was apparently intended to be a romantic comedy; unfortunately, it is only slightly romantic and utterly uncomedic. Matthew Perry (who is apparently from that TV show I never watch, whose cast members keep turning up on the big screen) plays Alex Whitman, a thoroughly stiff Manhattan yuppie who works for a company that apparently designs, builds and opens up clubs. Sent to Las Vegas for a few months, Alex has a one-night stand with beautiful Chicana Isabel Fuentes (Salma Hayek), who disappears the next morning without leaving so much as a scrawled phone number.

Three months later, she shows up to inform Alex (with no great expectations) that she is pregnant with his child. After an evening of backs and forths, the two decide impetuously to get married, even though their total time together is approaching maybe 12 hours.

Then they start to get to know each other.
The rest of the film's nearly 110-minute running time has them getting along, not getting along, lying to each other, breaking up, getting back together and generally doing the things people do in romantic comedies ... even in good romantic comedies. But the good ones usually are funny, for a start. And while the genre is so massive it's hard to come up with really fresh stuff, Fools Rush In seems to revel in its sheer derivativeness.

Normally, I would just take this kind of misfire as inoffensively lame. But Fools Rush In actually managed to piss me off. By the end, I was fantasizing about running over director Andy Tennant (whose previous film "credit" was that thing with the Olsen twins), then backing over him just to make sure he was experiencing adequate pain. So I'd damage my suspension -- so what? Sometimes you've just gotta make sacrifices.

Tennant's work here, matched fully by the dull screenplay, ranges from the merely hackneyed to the irritatingly inept. The very first scene -- Alex getting into an elevator on his way to an office party -- is woodenly directed; the dialogue at the party has "clunky exposition" written all over it. A few scenes later, there's a joke about Alex sitting on a hot car seat in the Vegas sun; it's timed and set up so badly it took me a few moments to decide that, yes, the joke was about the seat being hot.

After the beginnings of a pickup, Tennant dissolves to Alex and Isabel in bed together, discreetly omitting the rest of the prelims. But because he dissolves at a moment when Alex's line appears to be failing and because the scene is so dimly lit, I found myself frantically scrawling in my notebook, "Is that him she's in bed with? Is it someone else? And she's supposed to be wistfully thinking about him? Who is that?"

Later we are treated to such inventive, original jokes as Alex popping a champagne cork at groin level when Isabel emerges from the bedroom in a sexy outfit. Now there's a knee slapper! Other big surprises include Alex about to tell Isabel they should break up but going all gooshy when he sees the ultrasound picture of their child-to-be. You could never have predicted that one.

I became boorish about halfway through the screening, flawlessly predicting every plot development, reversal and punch line to the poor sap sitting next to me. To be fair, I believe I chuckled twice. (I won't ruin it for you by recapitulating the jokes.)

It's impossible to judge the performers, given the tripe they had to work with. Hayek is, as usual, incredibly sexy; since Perry looks like a dead-on cross between David Lynch and Kyle MacLachlan, I kept expecting something weird to emerge from his persona. No such luck. This really should have gone straight to video -- or, better yet, to a landfill.

Fools Rush In.
Directed by Andy Tennant. With Matthew Perry, Salma Hayek and Jill Clayburgh.

Rated PG-13.
106 minutes.

 
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