"Head Above Water" is an amiable, let's-hide-the-corpse black comedy that's funniest when it finally lets go of the reins in the last act. Elsewhere, despite watchable playing by Cameron Diaz, the movie takes awhile to find its legs, and is weighed down in the early stages by a seriously miscast Harvey Keitel.

“Head Above Water” is an amiable, let’s-hide-the-corpse black comedy that’s funniest when it finally lets go of the reins in the last act. Elsewhere, despite watchable playing by Cameron Diaz, the movie takes awhile to find its legs, and is weighed down in the early stages by a seriously miscast Harvey Keitel. With a good push, pic could be a reasonable earner across Europe, where it starts out this month, but will need some sexy marketing by Fine Line to help it along on Stateside release next year.

The movie is a close remake of a same-titled 1993 Norwegian comedy directed by Nils Gaup (“Pathfinder”) and produced by John M. Jacobsen, who also cops a producer credit here. Idea for a remake was broached by the pic’s sales company, U.K.-based Majestic Films, which had previously co-produced Tig Prods.’ “Dances With Wolves.” Jim Wilson, Kevin Costner’s partner at Tig, took on helming duties after a decade’s break from the director’s chair (“Stacy’s Knights,” 1983; “Smart Alec/The Movie Maker,” 1986).

Little seen outside Scandinavia and the fest circuit, the original picture’s main points of interest were its disarmingly fresh tone, summery look and copious disrobing by its female lead, newcomer Lene Elise Bergum. Though the remake is considerably more chaste in the last department, with Diaz holding the line at a bathing suit, the iconic American actress’s blond glamour is equally well deployed, and her acting smarts are way ahead of the inexperienced Bergum’s.

Setting is transferred to an island off Maine, where Nathalie (Diaz) and hubby George (Keitel), a respected judge, are vacationing at her family’s seaside bungalow. Nearby lives Lance (Craig Sheffer), a sculptor who’s also Nathalie’s friend from childhood. When George and Lance go off for some overnight fishing, Nathalie, who’s also a tad unstable emotionally, gets a visit from former b.f. Kent (Billy Zane), who arrives with flowers, chocolates and bedroom eyes.

Kent claims he’d sent a postcard announcing his arrival, but Nathalie, it seems, never received it. The pair mildly flirt and get drunk but (we’re led to believe) don’t actually have sex. But when Nathalie is awakened next morning by the sound of George and Lance’s boat returning, she finds Kent dead in bed, presumably of a heart attack.

At this point, some 20 minutes in, the real plot kicks in. Nathalie hides Kent’s naked body in the cellar (where his neck is accidentally broken) and dumps his clothes during a swim. When the truth comes out, George colludes in getting rid of the corpse, worried over the potential damage to his reputation. An attempt to sink the body at sea is hampered by Lance tagging along for the ride; eventually, George, who’s started to hit the bottle, cuts up the cadaver and cements it under some building work he’s doing.

So far, so mild. Recalling elements from other black comedies, from “Arsenic and Old Lace” to “The Gazebo,” but coming up short in bouncy dialogue, pic just about stays afloat thanks to Diaz’s playing, neatly pitched between wide-eyed innocence and klutzy panic, and technical assists from Christopher Young’s busy score and Richard Bowen’s eye-catching lensing of the Maine locations. But apart from her brief spin with Zane’s lively lover, Diaz is largely performing in a vacuum: Keitel, unbelievable for starters as a middle-aged judge, seems unsure at which pitch to play the largely physical comedy, and Sheffer, as the best friend, is fairly vanilla.

Tone changes dramatically into a comedy-thriller at the 55-minute mark, as Nathalie suddenly suspects George of planning Kent’s murder all along and now wanting to off her too. Marked by a breathtaking camera swoop as Nathalie runs for her life along a jetty, plus a major cranking-up of Young’s orchestral score , the film takes on a cartoony Grand Guignol character as the three leads develop increasingly murderous intentions toward one another, climaxing in a finale that’s straight out of “The Perils of Pauline.”

Once he abandons his low-key, largely naturalistic approach, Keitel is much better, and Diaz finally gets someone to play against. For some, though, the wait may be too long, and the pic’s sudden shift of tone, combined with the plot’s veering from corpse-hiding to corpse-making, is unsettling. Ending is similar, but not identical, to the original’s.

Still, the picture is a fine showcase for Diaz’s fast-developing acting skills. Tech credits are topped by Jeffrey Beecroft’s production design of the couple’s isolated bungalow and surrounding structures. Lensing and cutting are clean, though the weather sometimes changes noticeably from sequence to sequence.

Head Above Water

U.S.-British

Production

A Fine Line release (in U.S.) of an InterMedia Films presentation, in association with Fine Line Features, of a Tig Prods./Majestic Films production. (International sales: InterMedia, London.) Produced by Jim Wilson, John M. Jacobsen. Executive producers, Guy East, Tristan Whalley. Co-producer, Helen Pollak. Directed by Jim Wilson. Screenplay, Theresa Marie, based on a screenplay by Geir Eriksen and Eirik Ildahl.

Crew

Camera (color), Richard Bowen; editor, Michael R. Miller; music, Christopher Young; production design, Jeffrey Beecroft; art direction, Joseph P. Lucky; costume design, Colleen Atwood; sound (Dolby/SDDS), Richard Bryce Goodman; stunt coordinator, George Aguilar; associate producers, Maria M. Machado, Lynne Whiteford; assistant director, Lee Cleary; casting, Elisabeth Leustig. Reviewed at Century preview theater, London, Nov. 5, 1996. (In Sitges, Hof festivals.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 92 MIN.

With

George - Harvey Keitel
Nathalie - Cameron Diaz
Lance - Craig Sheffer
Kent - Billy Zane
Policeman - Shay Duffin

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