A Southern California ensembler similar in format to "Short Cuts" and "Magnolia" but quite different in tone, not to mention length, "Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her" marks a promising directorial debut by Rodrigo Garcia. A collection of five femme-oriented vignettes that are not intricately linked dramatically but overlap characters, this observant, emotionally acute drama is distinguished by a pronounced poetic sensibility.

A Southern California ensembler similar in format to “Short Cuts” and “Magnolia” but quite different in tone, not to mention length, “Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her” marks a promising directorial debut by Rodrigo Garcia. A collection of five femme-oriented vignettes that are not intricately linked dramatically but overlap characters, this observant, emotionally acute drama is distinguished by a pronounced poetic sensibility in its writing and visual style. Pic’s small scale and refined nature point it toward acceptance mainly by specialized auds, but strong cast and likely upbeat reviews should at least allow MGM to penetrate the multiplexes nationwide upon skedded late-April release following a Sundance world preem. Film’s qualities also augur well for foreign fest exposure.

Garcia is the son of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez as well as being an experienced cinematographer (“Mi Vida Loca,” “Four Rooms,” HBO’s “Gia”) and winner, with this script, of the 1999 Sundance/NHK Intl. Filmmakers Award, all of which begins to explain how he was able to recruit such illustrious thesps as well as the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki for his initial feature.

Structure roughly follows the classic “La Ronde” formula, but with characters unpredictably turning up in multiple episodes rather than leading the action out of one and into the next. Segments run from 15 to 27 minutes and, unusually for this sort of fare, there isn’t a stinker among them; they all sustain interest through unpredictable storytelling and nuanced characterization as they study San Fernando Valley women who are unfulfilled in one way or another.

This film with a lovely, Raymond Carveresque title gets started in muted but insinuating fashion with “This Is Dr. Keener,” in which the accomplished titular physician (Glenn Close), while looking after her invalid mother for a day, is brought up short by the devastatingly accurate comments of a tarot card reader (Calista Flockhart). Single and childless, the doctor is forever making furtive calls to a fellow medic she hopes to date, and with many turbulent emotional currents running beneath the surface, her delusional and self-destructive tendencies are exposed by her young, bohemian visitor.

A stranger who tells the central character a thing or two about herself reps an amusing sideshow in the second, longest and one of the best segments, “Fantasies About Rebecca.” A sexy and winningly self-confident Holly Hunter stars as a bank manager who, at age 39, becomes pregnant for the first time. Development is a total surprise, and when her lover of three years (Gregory Hines) drops by the apartment, Rebecca’s condition — and the proper response to it — occupies little more than a minute of discussion.

The lack of emotional, not to say moral, reaction to the pregnancy by both partners is startling — it’s a given that Rebecca will just “take care of it.” Garcia’s treatment is bracingly oblique and nonverbal. Oddly taken with the blunt aspersions a nutty homeless woman (Penny Allen) casts upon her character, Rebecca, while waiting for her abortion appointment, goes home and has sex with her admiring office assistant (Matt Craven). After the procedure, which is performed by Close’s Dr. Keener, segment hits its powerful climax with a stunning scene in which the hitherto composed Rebecca careens around a stark Valley sidewalk and twice breaks down into uncontrollable sobs, while the camera discreetly tracks her erratic movements.

Mood lightens with the third tale, “Someone for Rose,” in which a middle-aged author of children’s books (Kathy Baker) becomes romantically curious about a well-spoken dwarf (Danny Woodburn) who moves into the house across the street. Episode hinges upon the emotional and sexual emptiness Rose feels when she learns that her hipster 15-year-old son (Noah Fleiss) is sexually active, and upon the notion of the unpredictability of sexual attraction. But despite the solid contributions of all the thesps, segment’s concentration upon lukewarm comedy at the expense of thematic development makes this the weakest of the vignettes.

“Good Night Lilly, Good Night Christine” marks the reappearance of Flockhart’s character, Christine, who is revealed to be the lover of the seriously ill Lilly (Valeria Golino). Garcia’s skill with dialogue comes to the fore here; brief episode plays out like a short theater piece as the women cope with their unknown future together by recalling their first meeting in detail and summoning up other personal memories. Both actresses are aces as they deftly sketch in telling character details.

Final episode, “Love Waits for Kathy,” centers upon the strong relationship between sisters Kathy (Amy Brenneman), a doctor who has put her romantic life on hold, and the blind Carol (Cameron Diaz), who enjoys a healthy sex life that seems like a natural extension of her boisterous, and amusingly self-deprecating, approach to life; she’s given to telling dates how great they look, and to comments such as, “Only the blind and the homeless walk in this city.”

At this point, assorted other characters from earlier segments are neatly dropped into the mix, and Garcia even slips in an homage to Dad by having Carol read “One Hundred Years of Solitude” in Braille. In rather pat fashion, vagrant strands of earlier episodes are tied up through some quick intercutting, and ending too softly acknowledges the numerous intriguing themes — illness and dependency, the irrationality of attraction, the extent to which self-deception is used to cover emotional and spiritual malaise — that have been engagingly introduced.

So while the film doesn’t deliver in a major way, it does contain any number of poignant and memorable characters, feelings and moments, and it conveys them with an intelligence and lyricism that are considerably beyond the norm. Lubezki, for whom Garcia formerly worked as a camera operator in Mexico, gives this indie-scaled work an impressive professional sheen, while all other behind-the-camera contributions are discreetly on the money. Hunter, Diaz and Flockhart particularly impress in a picture marked by uniformly fine performances.

Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her

Production

An MGM release from United Artists of a Jon Avnet and Franchise Pictures presentation. Produced by Avnet, Lisa Lindstrom, Marsha Oglesby. Executive producers, Elie Samaha, Andrew Stevens. Directed, written by Rodrigo Garcia.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Emmanuel Lubezki; editor, Amy E. Duddleston; music, Edward Shearmur; production designer, Jerry Fleming; set decorator, Betty Berberian; costume designer, George L. Little; sound (Dolby Digital), Jose Antonio Garcia; supervising sound editor, Cormac Funge; line producer, Effie T. Brown; assistant director, Van Hayden; casting, Marnie Waxman. Reviewed at MGM screening room, Santa Monica, Jan. 13, 2000. (In Sundance Film Festival -- Premieres.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 106 MIN.

With

Dr. Elaine Keener - Glenn Close Carol - Cameron Diaz Christine - Calista Flockhart Rose - Kathy Baker Kathy - Amy Brenneman Lilly - Valeria Golino Rebecca - Holly Hunter Walter - Matt Craven Robert - Gregory Hines Sam - Miguel Sandoval Jay - Noah Fleiss Albert - Danny Woodburn Debbie - Roma Maffia Carmen - Elpidia Carrillo Nancy - Penny Allen

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