Ellen has found a movie vehicle that's sui DeGeneres in "Mr. Wrong." The saga of how the perfect mate evolves into the date from hell has an underlying darkness that may surprise and put off some of the actress's TV fans. But the hip, smart yarn has a bite not seen in American movies since "The War of the Roses." That edge spells commercial success domestically and should open up international horizons for the rising screen star.

Ellen has found a movie vehicle that’s sui DeGeneres in “Mr. Wrong.” The saga of how the perfect mate evolves into the date from hell has an underlying darkness that may surprise and put off some of the actress’s TV fans. But the hip, smart yarn has a bite not seen in American movies since “The War of the Roses.” That edge spells commercial success domestically and should open up international horizons for the rising screen star.

The story leaves virtually nothing in its path unscathed. Family, friends, the workplace, the law all get their fair share of abuse. A disheveled Martha Alston (DeGeneres) sits in her tattered wedding dress in a ramshackle Mexican jail and tells two local detectives how “it” happened. The thirtysomething producer of a morning chatshow, it seems, is the victim of parental pressure. With younger sister Annie walking down the aisle, Mom and Dad have been unsubtly effective at getting the message across that it’s time for Martha to settle down with a nice guy.

Though it seems an impossible dream, one evening in a local bar “he” steps up to the jukebox and plays “her” song –”I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Whitman Crawford (Bill Pullman) looks like Gary Cooper and acts like a dreamboat. Martha cannot believe her luck.

Still, it doesn’t take long for the cracks in the plaster to emerge. Whit’s a poet; to call him a bad bard would be too kind. Martha knows this but lies about his skill; she’s willing to forgive his artistic crimes because he seems otherwise a paragon of marital potential. He’s even charming when she trots him out for the folks.

But Whit admits that his performance for her parents is an act. And when Martha tells him that all she wants is “the real you,” a Pandora’s box is unlocked. It turns out that Whit’s idea of fun is shoplifting — and, to prove his love, he’d literally snap off a finger.

For Martha, the final straw is when she’s taken to meet Mrs. Crawford (Joan Plowright), who gives her the once-over and grants her approval, based on criteria more commonly applied to horse breeding. The evening’s capper, a less than brilliant session of charades, convinces the young woman that it’s time to look for the nearest exit.

The script by Chris Matheson, Kerry Ehrin and Craig Munson shrewdly goes against stereotype to deliver a bright heroine. Part of the picture’s delight is in watching Martha come to the realization that her knight is wearing tarnished armor. Nonetheless, compared with her past experiences, she hangs in for quite a while because Whit still appears to be the best available choice in the marketplace.

Pullman effects just the right balance of charm and dimwittedness. Once he’s sold on Martha as a life mate, he becomes a romantic pit bull. This is “Fatal Attraction” taken to comic extreme.

“Mr. Wrong” is arch and hallucinatory at times but has a bedrock of truth. That reality base allows for the shocked laughter one can experience only when the material cuts perilously close to home.

The picture captures DeGeneres’ talents perfectly. Her comic timing and dramatic instincts fill the bigscreen in a way not apparent from her television work. She’s capable of a classic double take, but her intelligent expressiveness never telegraphs the obvious.

Pullman pulls off an extremely complex character in deft, gleeful fashion. There’s also a wonderfulcomic turn from Plowright, and newcomer John Livingston, as a puppyish suitor in the office, conveys an ease and authority that brim with star potential. Only Joan Cusack, as Whit’s jealous ex-girlfriend, seems out of step in a role that’s too loud and overstated for the general tenor of the piece.

Director Nick Castle finally comes into his own, given the opportunity of first-class material. His “Mr. Wrong” is attuned to the shadings of the script, and both his pacing and staging are confident and precise. Pic is a rarity: a fast-paced, acidly etched contemporary U.S. comedy that’s extremely funny. “Mr. Wrong” gets it right.

Degeneres' Right Moves Fit the Bill in 'Mr. Wrong'

Production

MR. WRONG A Buena Vista release of a Touchstone Pictures presentation of a Mandeville Films/Marty Katz production. Produced by Katz. Executive producer, David Hoberman. Co-producer, Ira Shuman. Directed by Nick Castle. Screenplay, Chris Matheson, Kerry Ehrin, Craig Munson.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), John Schwartzman; editor, Patrick Kennedy; music, Craig Safan; production design, Doug Kraner; art direction, Nancy Patton; costume design, Ingrid Ferrin; sound (Dolby), Mark Hopkins McNabb; assistant director, Marty Eli Schwartz; casting, Jane Jenkins, Janet Hirshenson. Reviewed at Bruin theater, Westwood, Feb. 14, 1996. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Martha Alston ... Ellen DeGeneres Whitman Crawford ... Bill Pullman Inga Gunther ... Joan Cusack Jack Tramonte ... Dean Stockwell Mrs. Crawford ... Joan Plowright Walter ...John Livingston Dick Braxton ... Robert Goulet Jane ... Ellen Cleghorne Bob ... Brad Henke Mrs. Alston ... Polly Holliday Mr. Alston ... Briant Wells
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