Mario Van Peebles' new film, "Love Kills," might have been an entertaining farce about the rich and wannabe rich in Beverly Hills, but severely flawed pic lacks an intelligent script and a unifying directorial touch.

Mario Van Peebles’ new film, “Love Kills,” might have been an entertaining farce about the rich and wannabe rich in Beverly Hills, but severely flawed pic lacks an intelligent script and a unifying directorial touch. Despite a gifted cast that includes Van Peebles and Lesley Ann Warren, this messy, largely unappealing movie looks more likely to head straight to video than to gain theatrical release.

New effort reps a downward career step for Van Peebles after directing some politically challenging and technically accomplished films (“Posse,” “Panther,” “New Jack City”). “Love Kills” unsuccessfully attempts to be a brazen multicultural comedy in the vein of Paul Bartel’s superior farce, “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills.”

Van Peebles plays Poe Finklestein, a sexy New Age masseur who, as the story begins, arrives for an appointment at the estate of Evelyn Heiss (Lesley Ann Warren), a widow who won’t acknowledge the law of aging. Living with her at the plush house are her rebellious gay stepson, Dominique (Donovan Leitch), and her sister-in-law (Louise Fletcher), who seems to be at the window with her spy glasses whenever something interesting is about to happen.

Con games and treachery abound within the walls of the dysfunctional family’s residence. Evelyn makes it no secret that she married her much older hubby for money, and, for his part, the good-for-nothing Dominique engages in various schemes to rob her of the family fortune. To complicate matters, a nurse (Loretta Devine) from Poe’s past arrives with a bag full of lethal drugs, and a talkative, amorous cop (Daniel Baldwin) shows up when shooting is heard within the mansion.

Though boasting a hunky physique and a new look, Van Peebles acquits himself better as a director than as writer or actor, though he can’t rescue a silly film that suffers from preposterous plot development and awkward changes in tone. “Love Kills” struggles to be outrageous and impudent while satirizing L.A. stereotypes and lifestyles, but more often than not it comes across as inane.

Practically every thesp in the cast has done better work in previous films, including helmer and his father, Melvin Van Peebles, who plays a quiet gardener observing the crazy family from the sidelines. Warren is not convincing as the dizzy dame, while Fletcher is wasted as the sister-in-law with an agenda of her own. Also wasted is Devine, who showed so much promise in “Waiting to Exhale.”

Tech credits are good, particularly Brooke Wheeler’s bold production design and Deborah Waknin’s colorful costumes.

Love Kills

Production

A Trident production of a Mark Buntzman presentation, in association with Van Peebles Films, of an Ivan Cain production. Produced by Mark Buntzman, Mario Van Peebles. Executive producers, David Buntzman, Tobie Haggerty, Andrew Sugerman. Directed, written by Mario Van Peebles.

Crew

Camera (color), George Mooradian; editor, Edward R. Abroms; production designer, Brooke Wheeler; costume designer, Deborah Waknin; casting, Tobie Haggerty. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (market), May 21, 1998. Running time: 97 MIN.

With

Poe Finklestein - Mario Van Peebles Evelyn Heiss - Lesley Ann Warren Danny Tucker - Daniel Baldwin Dominique - Donovan Leitch James - Alexis Arquette Alena Heiss - Louise Fletcher Sylvia Finklestein - Loretta Devine Abel - Melvin Van Peebles Lela - Susan Ruttan
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