Despite some profanely funny dialogue and three strong lead performances, "Faithful" fails to spring tolife as a film. Director Paul Mazursky and screenwriter-star Chazz Palminteri have made only token efforts to "open up" the latter's well-received play about a depressed rich woman and the hit man hired by her husband to kill her. As a result, this determinedly offbeat comedy-drama too often seems talky and static.

Despite some profanely funny dialogue and three strong lead performances, “Faithful” fails to spring tolife as a film. Director Paul Mazursky and screenwriter-star Chazz Palminteri have made only token efforts to “open up” the latter’s well-received play about a depressed rich woman and the hit man hired by her husband to kill her. As a result, this determinedly offbeat comedy-drama too often seems talky and static. Pic may post modest numbers in urban markets, but likely won’t find its largest audience until it reaches video and pay TV venues.

In her first movie role since 1990′s “Mermaids,” Cher manages the difficult feat of appearing at once haggard and beautiful. She is well-cast as Margaret O’Donnel, the neglected wife of a New York trucking-company owner (Ryan O’Neal) who’s having an affair with his much younger secretary. When Jack takes a business trip on the day of their 20th anniversary, Margaret turns suicidal. Before she can take an overdose of pills, however, she’s interrupted by Tony (Palminteri), who immediately ties her to a living room chair.

At first, it appears that Tony intends to talk Margaret to death. But it turns out that he is delaying only until he gets a call from Margaret’s husband. Once Jack is far enough away to establish an alibi, he will dial his home number, let the phone ring twice, then hang up. That will be Tony’s signal to murder Margaret, so Jack can collect $ 5 million in insurance.

This leads to an hour or so of edgy give-and-take. Margaret and Tony converse on a variety of topics, covering everything from adultery (he insists that fellatio doesn’t count as marital infidelity) to the relative merits of smooth and creamy peanut butter.

Most of the time, Tony is antagonistic and sarcastic, repeatedly berating Margaret for putting up with Jack for so long. But Tony, too, has his deep-rooted problems: He inadvertently caused the death of his sister during a mob-ordered hit. Occasionally, Tony interrupts his verbal sparring with Margaret for a phone consultation with his psychiatrist, broadly played by Mazursky. But the shrink is of little help — the best he can do is recommend that Tony read “The Road Less Travelled.”

It isn’t terribly surprising that an erotic attraction eventually develops between Margaret and Tony. Indeed, this development willcome as even less of a surprise to viewers who already have seen two films with strikingly similar plots: “Diary of a Hit Man” (1992) and last year’s “Bulletproof Heart” (aka “Killer”). What is surprising is that right after Margaret and Tony get horizontal, “Faithful” abruptly shifts gears.

When Jack returns home and tries hard to disguise his surprise at finding Margaret still alive, Mazursky seems to time-warp back to the 1970s. All at once , his new pic has the intensity and emotional tone of his “Blume in Love” (1973) and “An Unmarried Woman” (1978). Jack and Margaret pick over the carcass of their dead marriage in an extended dialogue packed with two decades of bitter resentments and broken promises. The writing, acting and direction are so splendid during this section of the pic, it’s a little disappointing when the hit man reappears to wrap up the plot.

Here and elsewhere in “Faithful,” O’Neal serves notice that he has evolved into a first-rate character actor during his seven-year absence from movies. (His last major film was 1989′s “Chances Are”).

Cher has a trickier role and has a more difficult time maneuvering through some much wider mood swings. She is never less than credible, but there are times when the effort is obvious.

Palminteri behaves with all the confidence and brio of a man who knows he has written some hilarious lines — most of them unprintable — and a nifty role for himself. Even more than Cher, however, he is hard-pressed at times to make theatrically stylized dialogue sound like realistically casual conversation.

Cinematographer Fred Murphy and production designer Jeffrey Townsend do standout work in conveying the luxury of the O’Donnel mansion. The soundtrack contains some apt standards; Dinah Washington’s rendition of “What a Difference a Day Makes” is used to especially amusing effect. Other tech credits are fine.

Mazursky reportedly clashed with the pic’s producers over the final cut, to the point of briefly threatening to remove his name from the credits. Presumably , since Mazursky continues to be billed as director (and co-star), he got his way, and “Faithful” is exactly the picture he intended to make. For better or worse.

Faithful

Production

A New Line Cinema (U.S.)/Miramax Intl. release of a Savoy Pictures presentation of a Tribeca Films production. Executive producers, Peter Gatien, Dan Lauria. Produced by Jane Rosenthal, Robert De Niro. Co-producer, Geoffrey Taylor. Directed by Paul Mazursky. Screenplay, Chazz Palminteri, based on his play.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Fred Murphy; editor, Nicholas C. Smith; music, Phillip Johnston; production design, Jeffrey Townsend; art direction, Caty Maxey; costumes, Hope Hanafin; sound (Dolby), Bill Daly; associate producer, Henry Bronchtein; casting, Ellen Chenoweth. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 26, 1996. Running time: 88 min.

With

Margaret - Cher
Tony - Chazz Palminteri
Jack - Ryan O'Neal
Dr. Susskind - Paul Mazursky
Debbie - Amber Smith
Maria - Elisa Leonetti
With: Mark Nassar, Stephen Spinella, Jeffrey Wright, David Merino, Steven Randazzo, Olinda Turturro.
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