Gregg Araki asserts his potency as an innovative, unpredictable filmmaker with "Splendor," an erotically surrealistic comedy centering on a menage a trois, fetchingly played by Kathleen Robertson, Johnathon Schaech, and, best of all, Matt Keeslar, who steals every scene he's in. A reworking of classic screwball comedies, "Splendor" is a decidedly late-1990s tale in its stylistic if not thematic treatment, one likely to please the twentysomething and MTV crowd.

After devoting most of the 1990s to various explorations of teen angst, Gregg Araki reasserts his potency as an innovative, unpredictable filmmaker with “Splendor,” an erotically surrealistic comedy centering on a menage a trois, fetchingly played by Kathleen Robertson, Johnathon Schaech, and, best of all, Matt Keeslar, who steals every scene he’s in. A reworking of classic screwball comedies, “Splendor” is a decidedly late-1990s tale in its stylistic if not thematic treatment, one likely to please the twentysomething and MTV crowd. A small distributor may be intrigued by this upbeat, visually stunning but inconsequential picture that holds limited commercial appeal in today’s market.

Having lost his core gay audience with the “Teen Apocalypse Trilogy” (“Totally F***ed Up,” “The Doom Generation” and “Nowhere”), all of which failed commercially, Araki has been forced to return to the creative well and come up with a different kind of film.

Though less violent and macabre than all of his previous movies, “Splendor” is not exactly fresh, nor a radical point of departure. Borrowing heavily from Noel Coward’s “Design for Living,” Howard Hawks’ “His Girl Friday” and, most of all, George Cukor’s “The Philadelphia Story,” this new romantic comedy also recalls Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It,” as the tale centers upon a beautiful, sexually vibrant and promiscuous blonde named Veronica (Robertson) and her various suitors.

Addressing the camera directly, in the manner of Woody Allen’s 1970s comedies, the self-absorbed Veronica narrates her amorous escapades and inability to commit, a joke on the traditional Hollywood male’s reluctance to commit. In the first and best reel, Veronica meets two diametrically opposed lovers: Abel (Schaech), a witty, charming rock critic, and Zed (Keeslar), an instinctive, sexually insatiable punk rock band drummer. Representing two contrasting forces in Veronica’s life, Abel provides mental stimulation, while Zed offers animal physicality.

When Abel and Zed fall head over heels for Veronica — and she claims she’s equally in love with both — the “logical” solution is to defy society’s bourgeois rules, move in together and establish an unconventional household. After several months, when both Abel and Zed prove immature in their slacker/bohemian lifestyle, Veronica, an aspiring actress, is forced to find gainful, often humiliating jobs. All along, she confides in her best friend, art student Mike (rigidly acted by Kelly Macdonald), in scenes that are more irritating than entertaining.

Complications abound when Veronica meets Ernest (Eric Mabius), a rich, successful director, at an audition, and he also becomes smitten with her. It doesn’t help that she’s pregnant and is not exactly sure who the father is, which throws the quartet into a quandary. The finale, in which Abel and Zed rescue Veronica from her wedding to Ernest, brings to mind numerous scenes from vintage Hollywood movies from “It Happened One Night” to “The Graduate.” Unfortunately, Araki can’t find a witty or original way to end his tale, and last act is disappointingly silly.

Here and there, there are touches of the subversive, anti-establishment Araki. For example, for the nebbishy “Ralph Bellamy character,” helmer casts a bright, handsome thesp (Mabius), thus increasing the tension between Ernest and his two nemeses. In classic Hollywood pix, the audience always knew when the heroine didn’t really belong with her fiance and that she should never marry the man chosen by her wealthy father. In “Splendor,” however, the heroine could have gone with any of her three beaux, an indication of the times’ loose morality as well as narrative weaknesses.

What’s disappointing about “Splendor” is that Araki shows less courage than Noel Coward did 70 years ago in “Design for Living” in delineating the kind of relationship that prevails between Abel and Zed when Veronica walks out on them — and they continue to share a household together.

Even so, the charisma of the triangle, particularly Robertson and Keeslar (for some reason, the usually handsome Schaech is poorly lit and doesn’t look good) carry this fluffy comedy over its extremely thin veneer.

Staged in a freewheeling, associative, fractured style, “Splendor” features characters that are not nearly as riveting or resonant as those that populated Depression era screwball comedies. Infatuated with three different men, in “Philadelphia Story,” Katharine Hepburn’s snobbishly arrogant Tracy Lord learned a lesson or two in humility and humanity, lessons utterly missing from “Splendor’s” frivolous nature.

Collaborating again with gifted lenser Jim Fealy and production designer Patti Podesta, Araki has made a seductively sensual picture that entices while it lasts but evaporates like an air bubble as soon as it is over.

Splendor

Production

A Summit Entertainment and Newmarket Capital Group presentation of a Desperate Pictures/Dragon Pictures production. Produced by Damian Jones, Graham Broadbent, Gregg Araki. Executive producers, Heidi Lester, William Tyrer, Chris Ball. Directed, written, edited by Gregg Araki.

With

Veronica - Kathleen Robertson Abel - Johnathon Schaech Zed - Matt Keeslar Mike - Kelly Macdonald Ernest - Eric Mabius Mutt - Dan Gatto Alison - Linda Kim
Camera (color), Jim Fealy; co-editor, Tatiana S. Riegel; music, Daniel Licht; music supervisor, Howard Paar; production designer, Patti Podesta; costume designer, Susanna Puisto; line producer, Dave Pomier; casting, Mary and Karen Margiotta. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premiere), Jan. 29, 1999. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 93 MIN.
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