The best thing to be said about "Hugo Pool," the bizarre love story of a female pool cleaner and a man in a wheelchair, is that it puts quintessential indie director Robert Downey Sr. behind the camera after a long absence. A labor of love by all concerned, the movie seldom achieves the quirky, zany rhythm it strives for. Primary target viewers are actors, who will appreciate --- and envy --- the total freedom granted to thesps Sean Penn, Robert Downey Jr., Patrick Dempsey and rest of gifted ensemble. Other audiences may have to seek out pic on fest circuit, or wait for the video version, as theatrical prospects don't appear bright.

The best thing to be said about “Hugo Pool,” the bizarre love story of a female pool cleaner and a man in a wheelchair, is that it puts quintessential indie director Robert Downey Sr. behind the camera after a long absence. A labor of love by all concerned, the movie seldom achieves the quirky, zany rhythm it strives for. Primary target viewers are actors, who will appreciate — and envy — the total freedom granted to thesps Sean Penn, Robert Downey Jr., Patrick Dempsey and rest of gifted ensemble. Other audiences may have to seek out pic on fest circuit, or wait for the video version, as theatrical prospects don’t appear bright.

Written by Downey and his wife of 14 years, Laura, who died of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) at age 36, “Hugo Pool” is undoubtedly a personal film, an unabashedly tender tribute to the magical powers of love. There’s also little doubt that pic’s aspirations far surpass its level of execution in all departments — scripting, helming and acting.

Charming protagonist is Hugo Dugay (Alyssa Milano), a lonely, disenfranchised female pool cleaner whose L.A. clients represent a desperate bunch, to say the least. Hugo’s parents are estranged midlife-crisis poster children: Mother Minerva (Cathy Moriarty) is a chronic gambler who carries a huge debt that she must pay on schedule, or else she will have to sleep with her repulsive bookie, and father Henry (Malcolm McDowell) is a lost soul who’s trying to kick all his addictions at once, heroin in particular. The joke is that young Hugo is much more rational and cool than her parents.

Faced with 44 pools to clean in one day, rather than panic, Hugo recruits the help of her wretched elders. Henry could benefit from doing something “useful,” which in this case is bringing “legal” water from the Colorado River to fill the pool of Chick Chicalini (Richard Lewis), an obnoxious bully. Along the way, Henry meets a mysterious hitchhiker (Penn) who becomes a kind of guardian angel.

Unfolding as a road comedy, with the group going from one pool to another, pic recalls in its structure Frank Perry’s “The Swimmer,” which, though set in Connecticut rather than L.A., also consisted of bizarre backyard encounters with bitter, angry residents of suburbia. Here, the most eccentric client is Frank Mazur (Downey Jr.), a Hungarian filmmaker who’s out on bail, having shot a movie extra in Mexico for overacting. Walking around in colorful jackets, Franz utters things like “Thank God it’s Los Angeles” while ignoring his 6-year-old debt to Hugo.

Central character is a new customer, Floyd Gaylen (Dempsey), an attractive man afflicted with ALS, which keeps him in a wheelchair and speaking with the assistance of a computerized talking device. Floyd, who joins Hugo and Minerva on their journey, is the healthiest in spirit, the most positive in thinking — and the most genuinely romantic. Functioning as a human angel, not unlike John Travolta’s character in “Michael,” Floyd brings laughter, love and even luck to the group of cynics. Floyd’s romantic scenes with Hugo provide the film’s most touching and lyrical moments.

Downey has never been a polished filmmaker, but his indie films of the 1960s and 1970s, most notably the trilogy of “Putney Swope,” “Greaser’s Palace” and “Pound,” were irreverent, often absurd satires. Though much more accomplished visually, “Hugo Pool” lacks these qualities, suffering from a slender, undernourished script and set pieces that are not sufficiently weird or funny. Here, for a change, is a comedy that should have been messier and more outrageous.

Downey seems to take a passive approach with the ensemble, letting thesps use their imagination in conceiving their roles. It’s not surprising that the quietest, most sensitive acting comes from Milano, who ably holds the film together, and Dempsey, who refreshingly underacts. It’s also not surprising that the most idiosyncratic performance belongs to helmer’s son, Downey Jr., a brilliant actor who has a tendency to overact and here has a field day with his over-the-top European accent and mannerisms. Rest of the cast falls somewhere in between, though Lewis and McDowell are a bit disappointing in their respective “big” scenes.

Production values are first-rate, including Joe Montgomery’s radiant lensing, Lauren Gabor’s colorful production design, Danilo Perez’s vibrant music and Joe D’Augustine’s crisp editing.

Hugo Pool

Production

A Nomadic Pictures presentation of a Downey/Ligeti production. Produced by Barbara Ligeti. Executive producers, Douglas Berquist, Mike Frislev, Chad Oakes. Directed by Robert Downey Sr. Screenplay, Robert and Laura Downey.

Crew

Camera (Foto-Kem color), Joe Montgomery; editor, Joe D'Augustine; music, Danilo Perez; production design, Lauren Gabor. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premiere), Jan. 22, 1997. Running time: 92 MIN.

With

Hugo Dugay ..... Alyssa Milano Floyd Gaylen ..... Patrick Dempsey Minerva ..... Cathy Moriarty Henry ..... Malcolm McDowell Franz Mazur ..... Robert Downey Jr. Chick Chicalini ..... Richard Lewis Mysterious Hitchhiker ..... Sean Penn
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