It's a bad sign when a romantic comedy grinds to a halt every time romance enters the picture, as it does in "Just the Ticket." But in the moments when the film turns its focus solely on Andy Garcia and the grimy, teeming streets of Gotham, it lets off sparks of vitality and originality.

It’s a bad sign when a romantic comedy grinds to a halt every time romance enters the picture, as it does in “Just the Ticket.” But in the moments when the film turns its focus solely on Andy Garcia and the grimy, teeming streets of Gotham, it lets off sparks of vitality and originality. And while his performance isn’t enough to make “Ticket” the cinematic equivalent of courtside seats for the Knicks, it does bestow the weak-plotted film with more than a handful of odd, diverting charms. Tepid critical response and lack of star wattage should hurt B.O. chances, but as word spreads that all of Garcia’s considerable gifts are on full display here, fans should make pic a brisk performer in ancillary and video markets.

This is the performance that Garcia fans have been waiting for since his breathtaking debut in 1987’s “The Untouchables”: As a ticket scalper who has never had an honest job, he’s cocky, vulnerable, dangerous and charitable all at once.

The film’s chief liability is Andie MacDowell, whose slow-voiced Linda is the wet blanket to Garcia’s firecracker Gary. Even MacDowell’s luminescence, which has brightened otherwise languid performances in many a romantic comedy, has considerably dimmed. She brings little life or depth to the role of an appliance saleswoman who dreams of becoming a gourmet chef and, for some unknown reason, is the object of Gary’s obsession.

The action begins with Gary and his team of scalpers, T-shirt sellers and merchandisers working an event outside the Met. We learn that Gary is the Bobby Fisher of ticket-scalping, a man who has a sixth sense of when the next big bus of Japanese tourists, primed to pay twice face value, will come around the corner.

When he and his crew (Laura Harris, Patrick Breen and the late Fred Asparagus, to whom the film is dedicated) are celebrating a particularly lucrative day of work, they learn of what promises to be their biggest score ever: Pope John Paul II is coming to New York for a onetime Easter Mass at Yankee Stadium. The pontiff’s appearance promises to be the must-see event of the millennium, providing Gary with a chance for one last big score before he quits his hustling life forever.

Gary’s chief obstacle is a man named Casino (Andre Blake), a slick hustler just in from Miami who is taking all of Gary’s business by flashing wads of twenties and paying Gary’s ticket sources twice his going rate. His other problem is that his ex-wife, Linda, wants him to stop dreaming and scheming, get a social security card and become a relatively normal person.

Shortly after their first scenes together, it becomes apparent that pic’s romance angle is not going to work. And MacDowell’s lack of focus is only a portion of the problem: While the outdoor ticket-selling scenes are innovatively shot with long lenses and hidden cameras, the indoor stuff between Garcia and MacDowell looks staid and typical by contrast.

It doesn’t help that the details of Gary and Linda’s relationship are cloudy. How long have they been apart? Why did they break up? When they hook up in the middle of the film, it’s even unclear whether they have sex. (For an R-rated film, “Ticket” is virtually sex-free, and its use of profanity seems milder than a typical “South Park” episode.)

Besides Linda, the other major person in Gary’s life is Benny (Richard Bradford), an aged former boxing-corner man who has taken Gary in as both son and protege. Gary and Benny’s complicated relationship comes to the fore only during the film’s second half, and as soon as it does, one wishes it was given the screen time earlier dedicated to Gary and Linda.

Pic mounts a lively denouement with Gary donning a nun’s habit to hawk his hot pope tickets without getting busted. His plan almost works. And while pic’s happy ending seems a little too easy, ending the film on a note of tragic realism would give this frothy diversion more importance than it deserves.

For all its flaws, the film was clearly a labor of love for Garcia, who also produced it and wrote and produced many of its Samba-inflected songs. His quick-wittedness and easygoing intensity is a perfect match for the free-flowing, guerrilla-style filmmaking that “Ticket” employs in its best scenes. It’s an exciting performance that leaves the viewer unsure of what he’ll do next, despite the film’s often predictable plot mechanics.

Writer-director Richard Wenk, who has been working on the film since he met the real-life Gary 20 years ago, clearly has a great feel for New York City and its oddball characters. One only wishes he was as sure-footed when it comes to cinema romance.

Overall tech credits are good, with Ellen Kuras’ outdoor lensing and Les Lazarowitz’s sound particular standouts. By contrast, Christopher Cibelli’s editing feels a little rough around the edges.

Just the Ticket

Production

An MGM release of a United Artists presentation of a CineSon production. Produced by Gary Lucchesi, Andy Garcia. Executive producers, Andie MacDowell, Yoram Pelman, Marivi Lorido Garcia. Co-producer, John H. Starke. Directed, written by Richard Wenk.

With

Gary Starke - Andy Garcia Linda Palinsky - Andie MacDowell Benny - Richard Bradford Cyclops - Laura Harris Casino - Andre Blake Mrs. Palinski - Elizabeth Ashley San Diego Vinny - Patrick Breen Zeus - Fred Asparagus Harry the Head - Louis Mustillo Barry the Book - Ron Leibman Alex - Chris Lemmon Tony - Don Novello Arty - Abe Vigoda Ray Charles - Bill Irwin Gerrard - Ronald Guttman Realtor - Donna Hanover Rhonda - Paunita Nichols Mrs. Haywood - Irene Worth Joe Frazier - Himself
Camera (Deluxe color), Ellen Kuras; editor, Christopher Cibelli; music, Rick Marotta; production designer, Franckie Diago; art director, Henry Dunn; set decorator, Karin Wiesel; costume designer, Susan Lyall; sound (Dolby/DTS), Les Lazarowitz; associate producers, Joe Drago, George Hernandez; assistant director, Robert E. Warren; second unit camera, Richard Eliano; casting, Amanda Mackey Johnson, Cathy Sandrich. Reviewed at the MGM Screening Room, N.Y., Feb. 24, 1999. MPAA rating: R. Running time: 115 MIN.
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