I'm death warmed over. You're death warming up," a dying AIDS patient advises a Stage 4 cancer victim in "I'm Losing You," and the exchange sums up the excessive morbidity that consumes the piece. Well written within individual scenes and displaying a certain visual elegance and tonal control, novelist and professional Hollywood chronicler Bruce Wagner's directorial debut shows some promise, but is too grim by half to stand a chance with anything other than a specialized public.

I’m death warmed over. You’re death warming up,” a dying AIDS patient advises a Stage 4 cancer victim in “I’m Losing You,” and the exchange sums up the excessive morbidity that consumes the piece. Well written within individual scenes and displaying a certain visual elegance and tonal control, novelist and professional Hollywood chronicler Bruce Wagner’s directorial debut shows some promise, but is too grim by half to stand a chance with anything other than a specialized public.

Wagner has significantly altered the focus and structure of his 1997 novel in his adaptation, and has also scaled back the scathing satire of the showbiz community. Even if the style maintains a Sirkian analytical detachment, result is an unexpectedly sympathetic portrait of some film and TV industry denizens who are crippled emotionally or mortally stricken physically. Unfortunately, the film itself is afflicted by an accumulation of casualties that comes to seem unnaturally contrived, a flaw that exacerbates the lack of dramatic rhythm and shape.

Pic starts out on the cheery note of wealthy, seemingly fit TV producer Perry Krohn (Frank Langella) learning, on the verge of his 60th birthday, that he stands a 90% chance of dying of inoperable cancer within the year. His psychiatrist wife, Diantha (Salome Jens), takes the news poorly, and Perry decides to postpone telling his son, Bertie (Andrew McCarthy), a has-been actor although only in his 30s, and adopted daughter, Rachel (Rosanna Arquette), who is actually the offspring of Perry’s brother, who, with the latter’s wife, died when Rachel was an infant.

These characters, and seemingly everyone in their orbit, are saddled with extreme sorrows and conflicts of nearly biblical proportions, and their fates are equally Old Testament in their severity. Bertie, who is promoting a dubious scheme to short-sell AIDS patients’ life insurance policies, is trying to be a good single dad to precocious daughter Tiffany (Aria Noell Curzon), but continually worries about the erratic behavior of his drug-addled ex-wife (Gina Gershon).

Crashing a party restricted to “H.I.V.I.P.s,” and passing himself off as HIV-positive for the occasion, Bertie becomes intrigued by “pozzie” Aubrey (Elizabeth Perkins), with whom he pursues a reckless sexual relationship, the motivation for which is insufficiently sketched by the script. At the same time, Perry launches into what he reckons will be his final significant affair, with Mona Deware (Amanda Donohoe), an English actress appearing in the producer’s wildly successful “Star Trek”–like series, “Blue Matrix.”

Rachel, who works at an auction house, suffers from moral ennui that drives her to respond to the overtures of an older Jewish woman to join her in the rare religious practice of ritualistically cleansing the bodies of the dead before burial. In the first of several whopping revelations offered up in the film’s central and latter stages, the woman informs Rachel that her parents were not killed in an accident, as she has always been told, but that her father murdered her mother and then committed suicide.

The accidental death of a main character that occurs shortly thereafter is not only impossibly contrived in its manner of revelation, but irrevocably cloaks the film in an all-pervasive sense of doom. Mortality and dread have always been among the most popular subjects of serious artists, but Wagner hasn’t sufficiently connected his nearly single-minded concentration on these matters to other aspects of society or, more important, to a broader philosophical/religious view of life and death to make his obsession pay off in any meaningful or resonant way.

In its calibrated, hermetic look at contempo physical and spiritual malaise as represented by residents of Southern California, “I’m Losing You,” which derives its double-entendre title from the common cell-phone utterance, occasionally reminds of Todd Haynes’ ambitious 1995 “Safe,” but is unlikely to garner a similar arty cult around it.

What Wagner does achieve is a literary high ground in his dialogue, much of which will amuse sophisticated audiences, as well as a nice consistency to his cool tone, which sets his characters at a certain ironic distance without losing an emotional connection to them. Especially successful is Langella’s portrait of the dying producer, a rich and robust man who is as tough-minded in the way he deals with the unfairness of a life cut short as he undoubtedly has always been in business and love. It’s an affectingly compassionate but unblinking performance.

Nearly all the actors have tapped into their roles in convincing ways, notably Perkins, who is fiercely spooky as the committed AIDS activist. There is a haunted quality to most of the characters that reflects the ways in which they have variously failed to achieve their potential, been sidetracked, abused or cheated in life; would that their fates had not been so dramatically forced, and that they had been placed in a context that gave them some meaning.

Tech qualities are pleasing on a clearly modest budget.

I'm Losing You

(DRAMA)

Production

A Lions Gate Films presentation of a Killer Films production. Produced by Pamela Koffler, Christine Vachon. Executive producers, John Dunning, Andre Link, Jeff Sackman, David Cronenberg, Michael Paseornek. Directed, written by Bruce Wagner, based on his novel.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Rob Sweeney; editor, Janice Hampton; music, Daniel Catan; production designer, Richard Sherman; costume designer, Theadora Van Runkle; sound (Dolby), James Samson; assistant director, Jim La Clair. Reviewed at Telluride Film Festival, Sept. 3, 1998. (Also in Toronto Film Festival --- Contemporary World Cinema.) Running time: 102 MIN.

With

Rachel Krohn ..... Rosanna Arquette Mona Deware ..... Amanda Donohoe Philip Dragom ..... Buck Henry Diantha Krohn ..... Salome Jens Perry Needham Krohn ..... Frank Langella Bertie Krohn ..... Andrew McCarthy Aubrey ..... Elizabeth Perkins Lidia ..... Gina Gershon Zev ..... Ed Begley Jr. Casting Person ..... Laraine Newman Ed Begley Jr. ..... Norman Reedus Tiffany ..... Aria Noell Curzon

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