A clever idea doesn't fire on all cylinders in "Martha - Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence," an upbeat romantic comedy about an American gal's entanglements with three Brits in London.

A clever idea doesn’t fire on all cylinders in “Martha – Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence,” an upbeat romantic comedy about an American gal’s entanglements with three Brits in London. Lack of real chemistry between the leads and unsteady direction by Nick Hamm dampen an otherwise promising screenplay by Peter Morgan. Tagged to a bright and breezy campaign by U.K. distrib Film Four, which released the film wide in a sizable 180 prints May 8, pic could sidestep mixed critical reactions and clock up reasonable numbers, though without hitting the jackpot. In the U.S., Miramax has delayed its release until the fall.

In some respects, “Martha” is a ’90s version of Richard Lester’s ’60s comedy “The Knack,” with three males, repping aspects of the era’s zeitgeist, thrown into confusion by an out-of-town femme (here a Yank rather than a northerner) who can’t read the signals. This being the late ’90s, “Martha” has none of the innocent swagger of Lester’s classic, nor its cinematic pranks; instead, Morgan’s script aims for a sophisticated, hall-of-mirrors approach in a cappuccino-drinking, laddish, neo-deco London that’s recognizably of the times.

Pic is mostly in the form of a flashback, as told by a depressed Laurence (Joseph Fiennes) to a neighbor (Ray Winstone) in his apartment block. Yarn starts three days earlier, with Laurence’s yuppie friend, Daniel (Tom Hollander), returning from a business trip to the States and fixating on a blonde, Martha (Monica Potter), he spots at Minneapolis airport.

Martha is penniless and on a one-way ticket to a new life – “a first flight to anywhere.” As Daniel soon discovers, she’s not dumb, but after chatting her up on the plane, he thinks he’s in with a chance once they reach London. Martha, however, mysteriously fails to show up for a lunch date the next day.

While narrating his tale of woe to Laurence and their out-of-work actor pal Frank (Rufus Sewell) at a cafe, Daniel almost comes to blows with the latter and seemingly aggravates the former when the discussion switches to the perfect woman. Later on, by chance, Frank bumps into Martha in a park, and hears she’s fallen in love and plans to fly home. Realizing who she is but not revealing his own identity, Frank makes a play for her, but she disappears when they visit an art gallery.

Script’s first twist comes some 40 minutes in, when Laurence reveals to his neighbor the reason for his anguish: Intending to meet Daniel at the airport but missing him when his plane arrived early, Laurence bumped into Martha instead – and the Earth moved for them both. Pic then replays events from Laurence’s point-of-view, reprising scenes in the cafe and art gallery, as misunderstandings mount among the three friends. Third act starts with Laurence visiting the neighbor (the point at which the movie began) and, after a further twist, careens to a conclusion in which Martha holds the whip hand.

With a stylish director at the helm, and the right mix of thesps, the film could have realized the sophisticated potential in Morgan’s script. However, though “Martha” still offers several pleasures, and as a whole it’s an easy enough sit at under 90 minutes, pic time and again drops the ball just when things start fizzing. Hamm – whose first feature, the Miramax period drama “Talk of Angels,” shot in 1995, is finally set to see the light of day this summer in the U.S. – seems incapable of establishing either a visual style for the movie or a light enough tempo to make either the comedy or the romance work except in fits and starts.

Undisputed hit of the pic is the diminutive Hollander, mostly known for his U.K. legit work, who as the brattish music exec used to getting his own way gives a flavor of what the movie could have been before largely disappearing in the mid-section. Sewell, as the slovenly Frank, evinces a laid-back charm and contrasts well with the cocky, manic Hollander.

Main problem on the acting side is with Potter and Fiennes, whose lack of screen presence and chemistry affects the whole shebang. Potter (Nicolas Cage’s wife in “Con Air”) is only OK in a role that demands much more as the linchpin of the whole movie: There’s simply not enough spark or personality to her Martha to convince as the object of desire of three assorted Brits. Far worse, however, is the brooding Fiennes (younger brother of Ralph), who’s a drag on the action and, at least in this showing, hardly justifies the mega-hype he’s been receiving in Blighty’s press: Thesp spends too much time looking like he’s auditioning for a deodorant commercial to meld with the rest of the cast.

Tech credits are adequate but look somewhat constrained by budget, with no special gloss to David Johnson’s lensing. Editing by Michael Bradsell is commendably tight, and regular montage sequences and songs jolly things along.

Martha - Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence

Production

A Film Four Distributors (in U.K.)/Miramax (in U.S.) release of a Channel Four Films presentation of a Banshee production. Produced by Grainne Marmion. Directed by Nick Hamm. Screenplay, Peter Morgan.

With

Martha - Monica Potter Frank - Rufus Sewell Daniel - Tom Hollander Laurence - Joseph Fiennes Dr. Pedersen - Ray Winstone
Camera (color), David Johnson; editor, Michael Bradsell; music, Ed Shearmur; production designer, Max Gottlieb; art director, Mark Raggett; costume designer, Anna Sheppard; sound (Dolby SR), Tim Fraser; associate producer, Lesley Stewart; assistant director, Kieron A. Phipps; casting, Mary Selway. Reviewed at Century preview theater, London, March 2, 1998. (In Cannes Film Festival - market.) Running time: 83 MIN.

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