Having made several disappointing studio movies ("State of Grace," "Final Analysis"), Phil Joanou takes the independent route with "Entropy," a low-budget meditation about the (im)possibility of personal movie-making and romantic love in an increasingly cynical, bureaucratic and highly pressured world.

Having made several disappointing studio movies (“State of Grace,” “Final Analysis”), Phil Joanou takes the independent route with “Entropy,” a low-budget meditation about the (im)possibility of personal movie-making and romantic love in an increasingly cynical, bureaucratic and highly pressured world. A small distributor might be tempted to take a shot with this movie, whose romantic story is far more touching and engaging than the film within film, as a showcase of Stephen Dorff’s strong and appealing performance as Joanou’s alter ego. Pic is likely to be enjoyed by viewers who subscribe to the MTV sensibility in big-screen entertainment.

Filled — and often burdened — with stylistic touches, such as fast-forward, slow motion, accelerated montage and split screen, this postmodern reverie aspires to the league of Truffaut’s “Day for Night” and other classics about moviemaking but has little new or interesting to say about the subject.

The narrative structure is more innovative than that of Joanou’s previous Hollywood pics. The story is framed by a long flashback, in which Jake Walsh (Dorff) addresses the camera directly and tells how he began drinking and smoking and how he found himself one day married to Pia (Kelly Macdonald), a woman he had met the night before. Sitting on his bed, wearing a white T-shirt and shorts, Dorff offers running commentary on various episodes in his life as a filmmaker and as a romantic; at one point, the narrator and the character even share the same screen.

While attending a fashion show with his stars, Claire and Kevin (Lauren Holly and Jon Tenney), Jake becomes intrigued with Stella (Judith Godreche) a French model. It’s love at first sight: They begin dating and soon move in together.

Their respective careers keep them apart for a while, but they maintain their passion over the phone. When Stella gets pregnant, Jake is not particularly sensitive or excited, and she goes through a painful abortion. The beauty of the central romantic drama is that, despite its simplicity and familiarity from other films, it’s still freshly observed and emotionally enacted.

The problem with the film-within-film format is not only its heavy reliance on cliches and its lack of humor, but that it’s extraneous. There is no urgent need for Jake to be a moviemaker; his character could have been any kind of artist (or pro) and the personal story would have still worked. Worse yet, the well-known gallery of dramatis personas — a callous studio chief, a pair of sleazy producers, an “artistic” leading lady who first refuses to expose her breasts, then realizes she can get a lot of money for it — is entertaining when introduced, but then gets irritatingly repetitive.

What gives “Entropy” a measure of charm and poignancy is the love story. Spanning a year and taking place in various exciting locations (the film was shot in N.Y., L.A., Paris, Dublin, Cape Cod and Las Vegas) Joanou’s insightful, occasionally sad tale centers on a young, arrogant, immature moviemaker who almost had it all and who became his own victim. It’s too bad Joanou doesn’t delve deeper into the more intriguing elements of his script, such as the notion that real life is always smarter and less predictable than the reel life portrayed in formulaic Hollywood movies.

Reflecting the helmer’s former work in musicvideos, “Entropy” suffers from excessive stylistics. At first, these gimmicks are diverting, lifting the conventional material from a level of tedium, but then it becomes clear that these excesses simply camouflage a routine story of a director in conflict with producers, stars and just about everybody else on his turbulent set. For a while, it seems as if Joanou uses the genre’s cliches in order to contest them, but in fact and quite disappointingly, he uses them straight.

Most of the secondary characters are constructed as stereotypes, used by Joanou as props to highlight the central relationship between Jake and Stella, played with exuberance by the two leads. Watching the lovely and graceful Godreche brings to mind numerous French actresses who have played similar roles in European art films. Ultimately, though, the pic belongs to Dorff, who dominates every frame, proving again what a gifted and commanding presence he is.

Considering the small budget (about $3 million) and the cross- cultural scope of the film, production values are impressive.

Entropy

Production

A Tribecca Films production in association with Phoenician Entertainment. Produced by Elie Samaha, Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, Brad Epstein, Phil Joanou. Executive producers, Ashok Amritraj, Andrew Stevens. Directed, written by Phil Joanou.

Crew

Camera (Fotokem color), Carolyn Chen; editor, John Galt; music, George Fenton, Mr. Dan; production designer, Lisa Albin; costume designer, David Robinson; visual effects supervisors, Billy Kroyer, Kerry Colonna; casting, Pat McCorkle. Reviewed at L.A. Independent Film Festival (opening night), L.A., April 15, 1999. Running time: 104 min.

With

Jake Walsh - Stephen Dorff Stella - Judith Godreche Pia - Kelly Macdonald Claire - Lauren Holly Kevin - Jon Tenney Sal - Frank Vincent Andy - Paul Guilfoyle The Chairman - Hector Elizondo

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