Topliner Elizabeth Pena again proves her mettle by carrying this slight, quirky tale of relationship intrigue in the Big Apple. Her oddball chemistry with a hirsute Andrew McCarthy, whose character turns up dead in very first scene (and is revived via flashbacks), helps enliven what could be claustrophobic material, making for hip indie fare. It'll be a tough sell in the 'burbs, though.

Topliner Elizabeth Pena again proves her mettle by carrying this slight, quirky tale of relationship intrigue in the Big Apple. Her oddball chemistry with a hirsute Andrew McCarthy, whose character turns up dead in very first scene (and is revived via flashbacks), helps enliven what could be claustrophobic material, making for hip indie fare. It’ll be a tough sell in the ‘burbs, though.

Trouble starts when Pena’s Vivian, a spunky Museum of Modern Art employee, returns to her Manhattan walk-up, only to find immature b.f. Reggie (McCarthy) on the kitchen table, skewered by a Samurai sword. At first, she’s convinced that this is yet another one of his elaborate practical jokes, since it’s exactly one year since they met (hired to paint her place, he basically never left).

Reality strikes soon enough, but instead of calling the cops, confused Viv asks her pal Louise (funny Paige Turco) to come over. The women try to piece together what happened, downing much anniversary-intended champagne in the process. Baffled and blotto, they’re about to give up when Viv’s women’s group arrives for a forgotten meeting. There’s not much “support”: They’re all so self-absorbed, no one even notices Reggie’s problem.

As the first take-charge gal to show up, Blanche Baker gets the best of this absurd situation; what follows, unfortunately, lacks the manic edge that would have made the farce fly. Writer-helmer John Feldman’s tight control keeps the tension high in two-handed scenes, but when the ensembles get more complex, the steam runs out. In fact, repetitive dialogue and too many flashbacks make the pic’s midsection sag, though the sick jokes, goofy fantasies and psychological loose ends eventually pay off with a twist ending.

Perfs are top-notch, with a special nod to Michael Mantell as a boring rival for Viv’s affections.

Tech types (most of whom were aboard Feldman’s previous “Alligator Eyes”) make plenty of unstagy hay on a skimpy budget, with bright lensing and a chaotic , candy-colored set good protection against boredom.

Sheila Silver’s folky score is OK, but it could have added a lot more resonance to the sometimes thin story.

As it is, Pena’s face — especially in that final frame — does more than its share of plumbing the depths.

Dead Funny

Production

An Avondale Pictures/Movie Screen Entertainment presentation, in association with Film Four Intl., of a Richard Abramowitz-David Hannay production. (International sales: Film Four, London.) Produced by Abramowitz, Hannay. Executive producers, Paul L. Newman, James M. Gould, Robert Baruc, David Marlow. Co-producers, Adam Brightman, Robert Marcus. Directed by John Feldman. Screenplay, Feldman, Cindy Oswin.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Todd Crockett; editor, Einar Westerlund; music, Sheila Silver; production design, Mike Shaw; costume design, Sara Slotnick; sound (Dolby), Melanie Johnson; associate producer, Jean Russo Gould; assistant director, Elizabeth Gill; casting, Susan Shopmaker. Reviewed at Alpha Cine screening room, Vancouver, March 22, 1995. (In Hudson Valley Film Festival; Cannes Film Festival -- market.) Running time: 96 min.

With

Vivian Saunders - Elizabeth Pena
Reggie Barker - Andrew McCarthy
Louise - Paige Turco
Barbara - Blanche Baker
Jennifer - Allison Janney
Maria - Adelle Lutz
Sarah - Lisa Jane Persky
Harold - Michael Mantell
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