Whatever else is wrong with "Mad Love," yet another variation on amour fou and love on the run, the sensual acting of charismatic leads Chris O'Donnell and Drew Barrymore is beyond reproach. This powerful, often steamy romance might achieve some success with the twentysomething crowd, if it wants a break from the big-scale blockbusters.

Whatever else is wrong with “Mad Love,” yet another variation on amour fou and love on the run, the sensual acting of charismatic leads Chris O’Donnell and Drew Barrymore is beyond reproach. Decidedly not typical summer fare, this powerful, often steamy romance might achieve some moderate success with the twentysomething crowd, if and when it wants a break from the big-scale blockbusters. Pic may have fared better had it been released after “Batman Forever,” in which O’Donnell plays the major role of Robin and Barrymore has a supporting part.

In her third outing, following the festival hits “Safe” and “Priest,” director Antonia Bird shows again that she is attracted to intimate dramas exploring individuals who find themselves in emotional crossroads that challenge their very identity. Paula Milne’s original script examines the passionate affair between Matt Leland (Chris O’Donnell) and Casey Roberts (Drew Barrymore), two very different high school seniors.

Set in Seattle, story begins as Matt observes in his telescope the eccentric behavior of Casey, who lives with her rigid yuppie parentson the other side of the lake. On the verge of adulthood, Matt lives a quiet life with his single dad and twin siblings, but he’s never recovered from his mom’s desertion of the family when he was 9. Matt is a serious young man, preparing for a college career. It’s clear that he’s never been in love — and is still a virgin.

Indeed, as soon as he lays his eyes on the beautiful Casey, an uninhibited spirit who’s precisely his opposite, Matt becomes captivated, willing to abandon everything he’s worked for to pursue a liaison. Helmer takes her time in the opening sequences establishing the contrasting personalities of her protagonists and their respective families.

The movie gains momentum in its second part, capturing the spontaneous intensity of Matt and Casey’s love. Theirs is a heat that consumes everything in its path, most of all reason and common sense. The middle section, when the two hit the road to Mexico, is exciting and believable thanks to the strong chemistry generated by O’Donnell and Barrymore, who have never looked more sensual.

Still, it takes Matt too long to see what the audience has already observed, that Casey is not just irrationally rebellious and a bit dangerous but downright manic-depressive. Pic’s last chapter is a bit dreary, with Casey going from one hysterical outburst to another until finally Matt decides to contact her parents and release her from his life.

Chief problem is overly familiar material about sensitive, misunderstood lovers, bringing to mind such classic American movies as “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Bonnie and Clyde.” Ultimately, Matt and Casey, and especially their parents , come across as types rather than freshly observed individuals.

Psychiatrists, however, will like this story, since Hollywood doesn’t sentimentalize or romanticize mental problems, as was the case in “David and Lisa,””Benny & Joon” and most recently “Don Juan DeMarco”; pic makes a strong case for professional treatment and even hospitalization.

Regrettably, the relatively upbeat ending doesn’t ring true, negating the story’s more dominant darker tones and ambiguity. Like “Priest,” film neatly resolves all its dilemmas. But unlike that film, in which Bird used humor to counteract the melodramatics, “Mad Love” is sober to the point of being somber.

That said, large sections of the pic are immensely likable. A disco sequence in which the two discover their mutual attraction is visually stunning. And an early scene in which Casey, trying to get Matt’s attention during an SAT exam, pulls the school’s fire alarm is endearingly spontaneous.

Bird is extremely successful with her actors. O’Donnell impressively meets his greatest dramatic challenge to date. Barrymore is a promising performer who improves with every film. Duo could emerge as heartthrobs of their generation if the film connects with the twentysomething audience. Of the supporting cast, standout work comes from Joan Allen as Casey’s sympathetic mother.

As lensed by Fred Tammes and designed by David Brisbin, “Mad Love,” shot in the contrasting landscapes of Seattle and New Mexico, is extremely pleasing to look at. Special kudos go to Eugenie Bafaloukos (“Reality Bites”), whose costumes feature both stars at their sexiest.

Mad Love

Production

A Buena Vista release of a Touchstone Pictures production. Produced by David Manson. Co-producers, John Landgraf, Marcus Viscidi. Directed by Antonia Bird. Screenplay, Paula Milne.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Fred Tammes; editor, Jeff Freeman; music, Andy Roberts; production design, David Brisbin; art direction, Mark Worthington; set decoration, Gene Serdena; costume design, Eugenie Bafaloukos; sound (Dolby), Nelson Stoll, Fred Runner; assistant director, Vebe Borge; casting, Dianne Crittenden. Reviewed at Avco Cinema, Westwood, May 22, 1995. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 95 min.

With

Matt - Chris O'Donnell Casey - Drew Barrymore Eric - Matthew Lillard Duncan - Richard Chaim Coach - Robert Nadir Margaret - Joan Allen Richard - Jude Ciccolella Joanna - Amy Sakasitz

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