A quirky little gem such as "A Pyromaniac's Love Story" needs special care and nurturing -- a sophisticated ad campaign, an aggressive schedule of opinion-maker screenings, a carefully thought-out platform release. Unfortunately, Disney is selling this offbeat comedy as just another dumb and dumber farce, and dumping it into wide general release. Expect a quick B.O. fizzle for this comic tale of burning love. Down the line, however, video renters likely will warm to it.

A quirky little gem such as “A Pyromaniac’s Love Story” needs special care and nurturing — a sophisticated ad campaign, an aggressive schedule of opinion-maker screenings, a carefully thought-out platform release. Unfortunately, Disney is selling this offbeat comedy as just another dumb and dumber farce, and dumping it into wide general release. Expect a quick B.O. fizzle for this comic tale of burning love. Down the line, however, video renters likely will warm to it.

Highly reminiscent of “Moonstruck” and other works written by John Patrick Shanley, “A Pyromaniac’s Love Story” is a modern-day fairy tale with a bemused appreciation of romantic love, blazing passions and other human follies. Television vet Joshua Brand (“St. Elsewhere,””Northern Exposure”) has assembled a sparkling ensemble cast for his debut effort as a feature helmer. And in Morgan Ward’s sweetly zany screenplay, he has found material perfectly attuned to the seriocomic sensibilities he has displayed in his best TV work.

Plot revolves around a mysterious fire that razes a bakery in a multiethnic, inner-city neighborhood. Initially, pastry boy Sergio Cuccio (John Leguizamo) fears his beloved employer, Mr. Linzer (Armin Mueller-Stahl), has torched the place to avoid a humiliating bankruptcy. But Sergio quickly learns the real culprit is the hotblooded, mood-swinging son of a successful businessman.

Mr. Lumpke (an unbilled Richard Crenna) offers Sergio $ 25,000 to take the rap for his son, Garet (William Baldwin). Sergio seriously considers the deal as it will enable him to see the world with the young woman of his dreams, Hattie (Sadie Frost), a spirited waitress with a serious case of wanderlust. But it’s only when Mr. Linzer is arrested and charged with arson that Sergio firmly resolves to confess to the crime.

Things get complicated when Mr. Linzer insists on making his own confession, to shield Sergio from prosecution. And things get even more complicated when Mrs. Linzer (Joan Plowright) makes her own confession to free her husband from jail. (The way she convinces a skeptical cop that she’s capable of arson is one of the pic’s comic highlights.) But the real complications arise only when, 30 minutes into the pic, Garet makes his first onscreen appearance.

With his bum leg, his low self-esteem and his penchant for operatic self-dramatization, Garet is more than a little reminiscent of the baker Nicolas Cage played in “Moonstruck.” (Cage’s character, it’s worth remembering, had an artificial hand.) But Baldwin makes the role much more than a smudged carbon copy by taking his own artful approach to bouncing-off-the-walls overplaying.

Garet set the bakery ablaze in the first place only to impress his rich girlfriend, Stephanie Potts (Erika Eleniak), who recently dumped him. He knows she has fallen in love with someone else, but he doesn’t know the other guy’s name. All he knows is that his rival was an employee at the bakery.

Stephanie walked into the bakery late one night and impulsively made some moves on Sergio. Nothing much came of this. But just try explaining that to Garet.

“A Pyromaniac’s Love Story” brings out the best in everyone involved. Leguizamo hasn’t been so appealing, or cast so effectively, since “Hangin’ With the Homeboys.” Indeed, he is even more charismatic here as Sergio, a dreamy-eyed but street-smart innocent who is so focused on his love for Hattie that he occasionally forgets to breathe.

Frost is aptly feisty and defensively pugnacious, but she is equally convincing when Hattie lowers her defenses to consider Sergio’s — and, briefly, Garet’s — words of love. To call her Hattie a sexy, sensitive tomboy wouldn’t be far off the mark. As Stephanie, Eleniak reveals a gift for straight-faced absurdity that would serve her just as well, if not better, in a Hal Hartley comedy.

Plowright and Mueller-Stahl are splendid, and the first-rate supporting cast includes Michael Lerner and Mike Starr.

Brand keeps the performances pitched at just the right level of larger-than-life sincerity and rarely allows excess to go unchecked. Occasionally, he does push the whimsy a bit too insistently, most notably in his persistent use of tango-flavored music to bridge scenes. For the most part, however, he manages to keep “Pyromaniac” away from self-conscious cuteness.

Pic was shot in Toronto. For a welcome change, however, the city is not used as a stand-in for New York or some other specific U.S. locale. Rather, scenes shot on location in many of the city’s colorful neighborhoods are imaginatively intercut to create a composite image of a timeless, nameless, vaguely Old World metropolis — which is the perfect place for a modern-day fairy tale such as this.

Cinematographer John Schwartzman and production designer Dan Davis deserve special praise for helping to make the magic work. Other tech credits are world-class.

A Pyromaniac's Love Story

Production

A Buena Vista release of a Hollywood Pictures presentation of a Mark Gordon production. Produced by Mark Gordon. Co-producers, Allison Lyon Segan, Barbara Kelly. Directed by Joshua Brand. Screenplay, Morgan Ward.

Crew

Camera (color), John Schwartzman; editor, David Rosenbloom; music, Rachel Portman; production design, Dan Davis; art direction, Peter Grundy; costumes, Bridget Kelly; sound (Dolby), D. Bruce Carwardine; assistant director, Patrice Leung; casting, Amanda Mackey, Cathy Sandrich. Reviewed at AMC Meyer Park 14, Houston, April 26, 1995. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 94 min.

With

Garet ... William Baldwin Sergio ... John Leguizamo Hattie ... Sadie Frost Stephanie ... Erika Eleniak Perry ... Michael Lerner Mrs. Linzer ... Joan Plowright Mr. Linzer ... Armin Mueller-Stahl Sgt. Zikowski ... Mike Starr Jerry ... Julio Oscar Mechoso Ass Pincher ... Floyd Vivino Ass Pincher's Wife ... Babz Chula Mr. Lumpke ... Richard Crenna
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