"Three to Tango" plays like an updated version of the frothy and wisecracky romantic comedies that were Broadway and Hollywood staples throughout the 1960s. Even with Neve Campbell ("Scream," "Party of Five") providing marquee allure, pic will likely skew toward a slightly older (and largely female) demographic. This lightweight item should enjoy a modestly profitable waltz through megaplexes before doing a quick two-step into ancillary venues.

With a nod toward “The Apartment” and a tip of the hat to “Any Wednesday,” “Three to Tango” plays like an updated version of the frothy and wisecracky romantic comedies that were Broadway and Hollywood staples throughout the 1960s. Even with Neve Campbell (“Scream,” “Party of Five”) providing marquee allure for teens and early-twentysomethings, pic will likely skew toward a slightly older (and largely female) demographic. Well cast and wittily written, this lightweight item should enjoy a modestly profitable waltz through megaplexes before doing a quick two-step into ancillary venues.

First-time feature helmer Damon Santostefano gets things off to a bang-up start with a vivacious credits sequence set to the insistent swing music of the Brian Setzer Orchestra. Pace slackens only slightly as the plot machinery smoothly slips into first gear, introducing ambitious Chicago architects Oscar Novak (Matthew Perry) and Peter Steinberg (Oliver Platt).

The two longtime friends are the underdogs as they compete with a more successful duo (John C. McGinley, Bob Balaban) for a multimillion-dollar building restoration project funded by health-conscious tycoon Charles Newman (Dylan McDermott). But thanks to a series of mixed signals and mistaken assumptions — fueled, paradoxically, by their business rivals — Oscar and Peter gain a dubious advantage.

Charles fancies himself an open-minded, freethinking sophisticate. At least that’s how he wants his perky mistress, struggling artist Amy Post (Campbell), to think he views himself. When his secretary repeats gossip about Oscar’s sexual orientation — he’s rumored to be gay — the tycoon makes a big show of not being the least bit homophobic. (Hopelessly heterosexual, the clueless Oscar initially doesn’t realize what Charles is talking about when he refers to “you people.”) More important, Charles indicates that he would give Oscar and Peter preferential consideration for the restoration project if Oscar would perform a little favor for him.

Since Charles can’t always be with his young beloved — after all, he does have to spend some time with his wife (Kelly Rowan) — he needs someone to “keep an eye” on her. Specifically, he wants Oscar to attend Amy’s art-gallery opening and maintain surveillance in case she gravitates back to ex-boyfriend Kevin Cartwright (Cylk Cozart), a superstar football player.

Predictably, Oscar falls for Amy as soon as he spots her at the art gallery. The evening is less of a mating dance than a comedy of errors when Amy invites Oscar to an after-hours reception. After a series of physical and culinary mishaps — they recklessly dine on tuna melts at a greasy spoon, then walk outside to upchuck their dinners — they wind up back at her apartment. But Charles drops by before anything amorous occurs.

The rest of pic revolves around Oscar’s reluctant resolve to continue the pretense, and much of the fun stems from Oscar’s being a tad too successful at passing himself off as homosexual. Charles wants the “safe” architect to continue keeping tabs on his mistress. Peter — who is gay, and more than a little amused by his friend’s discomfort at being perceived as such — encourages Oscar to keep on playing the game, in the hope of currying Charles’ favor.

Despite sporting a distracting retro hairdo — think of David Hemming or Tom Courtenay in a mid-’60s Brit pic — Perry makes a thoroughly ingratiating impression as a goodhearted guy who paints himself into a tight corner. Wisely, he refrains from swishy excess and limp-wristed caricature while playing a heterosexual who’s pretending to be gay. Indeed, he doesn’t behave any differently than when he’s supposed to be straight — which, of course, underscores the message of live-and-let-live tolerance that’s inherent in the script by Rodney Vaccaro and Aline Brosh McKenna.

Upbeat wrap-up of the plot complications is blithely unbelievable, even on the level of feel-good Hollywood fantasy. But before it trips over itself while dashing toward a happily-ever-after ending, “Three to Tango” is a smart and sassy comedy with a playful sensibility and subtle sensitivity. It boasts clever tweaking of all kinds of sexual stereotyping.

Campbell effectively plays Amy as a thick-skinned, softhearted gamin whose self-esteem has seriously depreciated after years of repeatedly selling herself short. McDermott once again scores by playing against his leading-man good looks, rendering Charles as a fatuous egotist who isn’t nearly as smart as he thinks. Platt gleefully steals every scene that isn’t nailed to the floor, while Cozart handles a tricky role with admirable aplomb and conviction.

Tech credits are first-rate across the board, with lenser Walt Lloyd and production designer David Nichols greatly enhancing the overall glossiness of the enterprise. The eclectic soundtrack emphasizes swing selections that keep things moving with appropriate exuberance.

Three to Tango

Production

A Warner Bros. release, presented in association with Village Roadshow Pictures and Village-Hoyts Film Partnership, of an Outlaw production. Produced by Bobby Newmyer, Jeffrey Silver. Bettina Sofia Viviano. Executive producers, Lawrence B. Abramson, Bruce Berman. Co-producers, John M. Eckert, Keri Selig. Directed by Damon Santostefano. Screenplay, Rodney Vaccaro, Aline Brosh McKenna.

With

Oscar Novak - Matthew Perry Amy Post - Neve Campbell Charles Newman - Dylan McDermott Peter Steinberg - Oliver Platt Kevin Cartwright - Cylk Cozart Strauss - John C. McGinley Decker - Bob Balaban Lenore - Deborah Rush Olivia Newman - Kelly Rowan Rick - Rick Gomez Zack - Patrick Van Horn Bill - David Ramsey
Camera (Technicolor), Walt Lloyd; editor, Stephen Semel; music, Graeme Revell; music supervisor, John Houlihan; production designer, David Nichols; art director, Vlasta Svoboda; set decorator, Enrico A. Campana; costume designer, Vicki Graef; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Peter Shewchuk; associate producer, Susan E. Novick; assistant director, Bill Spahic; casting, Marion Dougherty. Reviewed at Loews Cineplex River Oaks Theater, Houston, Oct. 9, 1999. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 98 MIN.
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