Seaside Bliss

First-time feature filmmaker David Frankel's Miami Rhapsody is so fleet-footed, cheerful and entertaining that it's tempting to dismiss it as just another piece of popcorn entertainment. But there's clearly a certain craft -- even art -- to creating a motion picture that makes you feel this swoony, giddy and grateful, and in that light, Frankel's movie is remarkable. It brightens up the increasingly dull world of Hollywood comedy like an unexpected ray of sunshine.

The film's heroine and voice-over narrator is Gwyn (Sarah Jessica Parker), a young advertising copywriter from a well-off Jewish family in Miami. It's pretty much a given in this sort of movie that everybody in Gwyn's zip code is having romantic trouble. Her mother, Nina (Mia Farrow), is embroiled in an affair with Antonio (Antonio Banderas), a handsome, Cuban-born nurse at her grandmother's nursing home. Gwyn's father, Vic (amusingly played by comedy director Paul Mazursky), is straying from his vows with a travel agent, Zelda (Kelly Bishop).

Gwyn's brother, Jordan (Kevin Pollak), a Type-A yuppie, is cheating on his wife with a gorgeous model (Naomi Campbell) who's supposed to be in love with one of his closest friends. Gwyn's sister, Leslie (Carla Gugino), just married a pro football player, and though the sex is great (he tells her on their wedding night, "I love to hear women scream -- it makes me feel like Michael Bolton"), the guy's a world-class skinflint who greets her surprise purchase of a sexy piece of lingerie by making her promise not to make any more major buys without asking him first. Before long, she's flirting with an old high school chum.

Compared to the people around her, Gwyn feels relatively sane and happy. She's engaged to Matt (Gil Bellows), a handsome, sensitive animal biologist who works at the Miami zoo, and she's been getting professional nibbles from an unctuous sitcom producer based in another city.

But soon Gwyn's life is as topsy-turvy as everybody else's. Antonio is coming on to her, and because her fiance has been so wrapped up in his work, even while pressuring her both to set a wedding date and specify how many kids she'd like to have and when, she finds herself attracted to him. She has conflicted feelings about marriage as an institution. She admits to pals that she's always viewed it through a storybook prism, but her wishful thinking has been challenged by the carnal shenanigans she's discovered going on.

As Gwyn narrates her way through her own love life and those of her parents and friends, the film hopscotches into amusing, often tortuously involved subplots. Sometimes the people in Gwyn's narration take over and tell their own stories for a while, and the film slips into their viewpoints, giving us an anecdote within an anecdote. (Sometimes the script gives you an anecdote within an anecdote within an anecdote, the cinematic narrative equivalent of a trapeze artist doing a triple backward somersault blindfolded while knitting booties and singing the national anthem. Every time, Frankel eases you effortlessly back into Gwyn's viewpoint, demonstrating a storytelling dexterity that takes most filmmakers decades to develop.) There's more dialogue in Miami Rhapsody than in any three standard movie comedies, and almost all of it's sharp; lines that could serve as the high points of other films are tossed out by the handful, like birdseed.

Many are spoken by Gwyn herself, and one of the surprises of Sarah Jessica Parker's performance is the way she makes the character's nonstop stream of snappy patter seem appealing and utterly organic. You can always sense Gwyn's restless, creative mind working, sizing things up and riffing off them.

When her fiance says he read a script she sent to that TV producer and thought it was very funny, she smiles sweetly, kisses his cheek and tells him, "Thank you. Your approval means a lot. Of course, in the real world, it means nothing, but it means a lot to me." When her sister complains that she's always disappointed she doesn't have a body like a catalog model, Gwyn deadpans, "Yeah, none of us do, but that's okay. If you did, that means you'd also have an eating disorder and breasts that explode at high altitudes." She can't stop being funny even when she's the only person around. When her brother flees in disgust from some burning barbecue he's prepared, Gwyn, standing alone beside the grill, watches the smoke rise and mutters, "Geez, it looks like the pope just died."

Parker's co-stars also shine. As Leslie, Gugino creates a marvelous new sexual stereotype: the good-time party doll as innocent cherub. Kevin Pollak, usually typecast in cuddly, downtrodden schmuck parts, has always seemed stilted and dull to me before; this time he gets to play a tight-assed little jerk, and the freedom from having to be likable liberates him. Eyes flashing with aggression as he swaggers around Miami like a Jewish Jimmy Cagney, he makes even simple acts such as dialing a cellular phone seem hilariously macho. As Gwyn's bemused, gorgeous and flaky mother, Mia Farrow gives her richest comic performance in ages. (Woody Allen rarely allowed her to tease and flirt, which might explain why she throws herself into the part with such randy delight.)

And Antonio Banderas hasn't looked this relaxed on-screen since he was working with Pedro Almodovar. Up to now, American movies have used him decoratively, encouraging him to smile and smolder rather than act. Miami Rhapsody certainly plays up his overpowering sex appeal -- at the screening I saw, when he finally put his hands on Parker's hips, the subsequent dialogue was obscured by the sound of grown women, and more than a few men, gasping -- but the film also gives him an endearing, offbeat, fully rounded character to play, and his kooky, ethereal side emerges. He's an original screen presence who combines the dashing charm of Cary Grant, the limber-bodied wildness of the young Steve Martin and a dash of adolescent bad-boy loneliness. During introspective moments, his facial expressions are so bizarre yet genuine that, watching him, you just know his character is thinking hard about things no other movie character has ever considered.

It goes without saying that Miami Rhapsody is as artificial and contrived as any screen comedy with pretensions toward sophistication. On some level, you can't help reminding yourself that nobody in the real world talks this wittily. But because the film respects the complexities of human relationships, it never comes off as too cute. Everything about it feels right, from the way the subplots resolve themselves in dramatically appropriate ways to the way cinematographer Jack Wallner gives every frame a shimmering, lively sheen, serving up a dreamy tropical wonderland of emerald palm leaves, candy-apple sunsets and oceans with the undiluted hue of blue acrylic paint squeezed straight from the tube. Straight-ahead escapist entertainment doesn't get much better than this.

Miami Rhapsody.
Directed by David Frankel. With Sarah Jessica Parker,
Gil Bellows, Antonio Banderas, Mia Farrow and Paul Mazursky.
Rated PG-13.
110 minutes.


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