A "La Ronde"-like tale in which guns, rather than sex, rep the connection between the characters, "All the Rage" is a smarty-pants, overweeningly hip black comedy about America's fascination with firearms. Overbearingly saturated by a post-modernist glibness and a winking awareness of the post-Tarantino cinema culture, this nicely made first feature from Broadway producer James D. Stern has plenty of ideas and talent bouncing off its elegantly appointed surfaces, but pic's intent is too didactic, and its approach too schematic, to generate genuine involvement with even the most intriguingly conceived of its diverse characters.

A “La Ronde”-like tale in which guns, rather than sex, rep the connection between the characters, “All the Rage” is a smarty-pants, overweeningly hip black comedy about America’s fascination with firearms. Overbearingly saturated by a post-modernist glibness and a winking awareness of the post-Tarantino cinema culture, this nicely made first feature from Broadway producer James D. Stern has plenty of ideas and talent bouncing off its elegantly appointed surfaces, but pic’s intent is too didactic, and its approach too schematic, to generate genuine involvement with even the most intriguingly conceived of its diverse characters. Some theatrical life is indicated by the fine cast, but commercial chances are iffy.

Adapting his own play for the screen, Keith Reddin hasn’t set out to write something as simplistic as an anti-handgun tract, but the implication behind all the action here is clear: The odds that something bad (and often unintended) will happen increase dramatically once you have a gun in the house.

Mordantly smug tone is set at the outset, as upscale suburbanite Warren (ha-ha) Harding (Jeff Daniels) shows his wife Helen (Joan Allen) how he’s just shot an intruder at 5 a.m., then complains about the blood that’s stained the robe he ordered from the Sundance catalogue. Turns out that the dead man in their living room is Warren’s longtime business partner, and it doesn’t take long for Warren to voice his suspicions that Helen had been having an affair with the unlucky fellow.

For her part, Helen had no idea there was even a gun on the premises, but, as the other characters are slipped into the mix, it becomes evident that no one is complete without one. Warren’s dapper and closeted attorney Tim (Andre Braugher), whose civil-rights leader father was gunned down years back, is gifted with an elegant pistol by his edgy lover Chris (David Schwimmer); Tim becomes involved with the brazen and slutty shoplifter Annabel (ha-ha) Lee (Anna Paquin), whose street punk brother Sidney (Giovanni Ribisi) would think nothing of plugging someone for looking at his sis the wrong way; and Helen, after leaving Warren, stumbles into a job as assistant to wacko Internet billionaire Mr. Morgan (Gary Sinise), for whom the real and virtual worlds have irreversibly merged.

Morgan’s former aide-de-camp, the earnest Tennel (Josh Brolin), happily takes a less demanding gig as a videostore clerk, while the only characters for whom weapons are normal professional accessories are detectives Tyler (Robert Forster), who is investigating Warren, and his partner Agee (Bokeem Woodbine).

Reddin has written a number of solid roles. He’s able to develop charged dynamics within individual scenes, and some of his dialogue is clever (Warren snaps, “A cheap whore may get you off, but never a cheap attorney”). The relationship between the reticent Tim and the pushy, goading Chris is as intriguing as it is hard to figure, and the odd collision of Sinise’s paranoid wildman and Allen’s prim, controlled housewife yields some unexpected comic dividends. Most of the parts give the actors something interesting to work with, and the ensemble performances are resourceful down the line.

Major drawback is that virtually all the characters are on the brink of exploding for one reason or another, and because the central motif, if not the subject, is guns, there can be no mystery as to how the pent-up tension is going to manifest itself. It all plays out in a disagreeably predictable climactic montage involving three shootings, all senseless and, pic plausibly argues, quite avoidable if guns were not so conveniently at hand.

Director Stern achieves a brittle, darkly comic tone and is clearly comfortable with his strong actors, some of whom, notably Braugher and Schwimmer, he has adroitly cast against type. But he pushes the ironies and cleverness far too hard, which serves to distance the viewer from the film’s intentions and p.o.v. even when they are sympathetic.

Tech contributions are stylish.

All the Rage

Production

A Mutual Film Company/Scanbox Entertainment/Newmarket Film Co. presentation of a Screenland Pictures production. (International sales: Mutla Film Co., Los Angeles.) Produced by James D. Stern, Peter Gilbert, Ash R. Shah, Anne McCarthy, Mary Vernieu. Executive producers, Will Tyrer, Chris Ball, Gary Levinsohn, Mark Gordon. Co-executive producers, Adam Del Deo, Todd King. Directed by James D. Stern. Screenplay, Keith Reddin, based on his play.

Crew

Camera (FotoKem color), Alex Nepomniaschy; editor, Tony Lombardo; music, Mark Mothersbaugh; music supervisors, Michele Kuznetsky, Mary Ramos; production designer, Jerry Fleming; art director, Brian Daniel Livesay; set decorator, Betty Berberian; costume designer, Edi Giguere; sound (Dolby Digital), Peter Meiselmann; line producer, Andrew Beugg; associate producer, Abbie Phillips; assistant director, Maria Melograne. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation), Sept. 13, 1999. Running time: 97 MIN.

With

Helen Harding - Joan Allen Tim Sullivan - Andre Braugher Tennel - Josh Brolin Warren Harding - Jeff Daniels Tyler - Robert Forster Annabel Lee - Anna Paquin Sidney Lee - Giovanni Ribisi Chris - David Schwimmer Mr. Morgan - Gary Sinise Agee - Bokeem Woodbine
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