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Life During Noir-Time

This retro neo-noir is full of powerless cliches

Love Walked In, despite the Gershwin in the title, is less champagne fizz than bottom-shelf rotgut rye, drained from a dirty glass. Argentine director Juan Jose Campanella follows up the relative indie hit, 1991's The Boy Who Cried Bitch, with this would-be indie knockoff. (He's also turned out a whole slew of television work recently, including HBO's admirable Life Stories and AMC's Remember WENN, for which he should probably be ashamed.) Yet this slice of life during noir-time represents little more than a holding pattern, plastering a thin story with scenes of smoky interiors, deserted windswept beaches and dilapidated, sun-streaked barrooms -- powerless cliches that do little to disguise the story's arthritic origins.

Denis Leary is Jack Morrisey, a one-bit piano player waiting out Social Security at the Blue Cat Lounge, an off-season nightspot in the less-than-fashionable environs of Long Island. Jack's saving grace is his torch singer wife, Vicky (Spanish beauty Aitana Sanchez Gijon, last seen stateside in '95's A Walk in the Clouds), who continues to stay with him despite his barely bridled alcoholism and perpetual down-on-his-luck status. Into this tinderbox wanders old friend and low-rent private dick Eddie (Michael Badalucco, currently doing fine work on NBC's The Practice), who's trying to get the goods on wealthy financier Fred (Terence Stamp) at the behest of his wealthier, meal-ticket wife.

Since Fred has already shown interest in Vicky, while otherwise being peskily faithful (a fidelity that blows Eddie's commission), Jack and Eddie hatch a plan for Vicky to get close to Fred long enough to get photographs that will prove him otherwise. Jack grabs for this brass ring with both hands, and back-flips spectacularly off the wagon as a consequence. After this Pandora's box has been opened, suffice it to say that things do not go well.

To complicate the storytelling process, what seems at first a novel technique (literally) very quickly grows tedious and runs at cross-purposes to the film's fatalism. Not content just to make Jack a failed songwriter, the filmmakers see fit to grace him with a failed literary talent as well. As he brainstorms a novel-in-progress about two doomed brothers, we are subjected to constant updates and intrusive cross-cutting at practically every dramatic juncture. These cuts are mildly compelling at first, but overstay their welcome in the first half-hour. Accomplished day players such as Danny Nucci and the sublime Moira Kelly add to the film, but they would be advised next time either to hold out for their own picture or give it up.

The one exception to all of this is Leary himself. It seems as if, more often than not, all-too-retro neo-noirs start out with Everymen who quickly find themselves in over their heads -- Henry Fonda in Hitchcock's The Wrong Man rather than Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity. But true noir has always been about people with nothing left to lose. This provides a narrative balance to the femmes fatales, bunco grifters, insurance scams, racetrack heists and all the other open pits these people invariably fall into.

Leary -- with his rampant misanthropy and lapsed-Catholic fall from grace, his trademark motormouth spiel and his lascivious sidelong glances at the bottle in front of him -- is perfect as the kind of guy who can't wait to bet what modest successes life has afforded him on a shortcut to the good life. And the litany of ruminations and recriminations he tosses out to his bewildered clientele, and for which he is constantly in danger of being fired, are easily the best thing about the film.

Stamp, as always, is excellent, and the sultry Sanchez Gijon, a kind of just-add-water-and-stir Valeria Golino without the comic timing, certainly helps the time go by a little more pleasantly. In fact, the whole ride is mostly downhill, so familiar is the landscape, and certainly seems painless enough; it's not a film to walk out on. But in their efforts to be judicious to a fault and allow everyone a shot at redemption, the filmmakers bend the genre back against itself and violate one of the cardinal rules of this universe: The world is not a nice place. Find yourself living in it, and expect to pay the price. Those who ignore this truism are likely to meet with a justice both terrible and swift. The same might be said of filmmakers who chance upon it and wade in ankle-deep, just to kill some time.

Love Walked In.
Directed by Juan Jose Campanella. With Denis Leary, Aitana Sanchez Gijon, Terence Stamp and Michael Badalucco.

Rated R.
119 minutes.

 
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