A solid cast of upscale-indie stalwarts --- yes, Eric Stoltz included --- makes the time pass painlessly enough in "Hi-Life," a Manhattan-set ensemble piece. Like writer-turned-helmer Roger Hedden's prior produced screenplays, the likewise Stoltz-starring "Bodies, Rest and Motion" and "Sleep With Me," this relationship comedy is talky, amiable and no great shakes.

A solid cast of upscale-indie stalwarts — yes, Eric Stoltz included — makes the time pass painlessly enough in “Hi-Life,” a Manhattan-set ensemble piece. Like writer-turned-helmer Roger Hedden’s prior produced screenplays, the likewise Stoltz-starring “Bodies, Rest and Motion” and “Sleep With Me,” this relationship comedy is talky, amiable and no great shakes. Given that this particular genre has long since lost novelty appeal, middling pic looks to eke out just minor arthouse and ancillary returns.

One night around Christmastime finds various friends, friends-of-friends, and mere passersby embroiled in a wild (well, mild) goose chase for money around the Upper West Side instigated by out-of-work actor Jimmy (Stoltz), who many of them detest. He owes $ 900 to local bookie Fatty (Charles Durning) and might get a limb broken if he doesn’t pony up.

To get the cash fast, he’s told long-suffering girlfriend Susan (Moira Kelly) that he needs it to fund an emergency abortion for golddigging sis Maggie (Daryl Hannah). But latter has recently jilted Susan’s bartender pal Ray (Campbell Scott), so she tells him the dough is needed for her own Planned Parenthood visit.

Ray, a soft touch with a bruised heart, tours area watering holes accompanied by friendly customer April (Katrin Cartlidge), who’s a lot less shy about hitting up his friends for debt payup.

Meanwhile, Jimmy bungles his own treasure hunt in the forced company of weary Miner (Peter Reigart); latter has arranged their serial “accidental” encounters with a teenage mugger (Carlo Alban) for his own purposes. Susan finds her rounds joined by two drunken, off-duty paramedics (Bruce MacVittie, Teagan West). Also hot on the circuitous trail are Fatty and Miner’s bossy spouses (Saundra Santiago, Anne DeSalvo).

One minor gunshot wound notwithstanding, everybody here seems to enjoy cruising the wintry city between cocktails, having nothing much better to do. A fledgling new romance or two emerges from the night’s ramble, so what’s the harm?

Indeed, no one save Jimmy himself suffers much when a closing-time mass rendezvous atRay’s titular bar exposes all the loutish actor’s scheming. And even he shrugs it off after a few hairy moments.

It’s clear long before the low-key climax that very little is at stake in “Hi-Life,” granting it considerably less pulse than “The Daytrippers” and other similar recent exercises.

There are scattered sharp lines and amusing situations (notably Ray’s dustup with a cranky Santa). But overall, Hedden treads familiar ground without stirring more than a passable modicum of shaggy charm or character involvement. Agreeable as the performers are, they’re hardly taxed by what’s demanded here.

Entirely location-shot, polished if routine-looking feature nonetheless might as well have been filmed anywhere for all the Manhattan flavor captured. Pro tech package is highlighted by soundtrack’s employment of numerous kitschy Xmas oldies.

Hi-Life

Production

A Lions Gate Films release of a Silverman production, in association with Gun for Hire Films. Produced by Erica Spellman-Silverman. Executive producers, Steven C. Beer, Michael Paseornek, Jeff Sackman. Directed, written by Roger Hedden.

Crew

Camera (color), John Thomas; editor, Tom McArdle; music, David Lawrence; music supervisor, Barry Cole; production designer, Sharon Lomofsky; set decorator, Christina Buckley; costume designer, Isis Mussenden; sound (Dolby digital), Jeff Pullman; line producer, Ray Angelic; associate producer, Jana Edelbaum; assistant director, Adam Escott; casting, Deborah Brown. Reviewed at Mill Valley Film Festival, Oct. 7, 1998. (Also in Chicago Film Festival--American Discoveries.) Running time: 82 MIN.

With

April - Katrin Cartlidge
Fatty - Charles Durning
Maggie - Daryl Hannah
Susan - Moira Kelly
Miner - Peter Reigert
Ray - Campbell Scott
Jimmy - Eric Stoltz
Sherry - Anne DeSalvo
Elena - Saundra Santiago
Clayton - Bruce MacVittie
Phil - Teagan West
Ricky - Carlo Alban
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