Angus MacFadyen, Penelope Ann Miller

Half-baked execution and a wishy-washy script make "A Woman's a Helluva Thing" much lessuva thing than it could have been. Smirking take on sex wars feels curiously dated, and thesps never gel into a coherent unit.

Half-baked execution and a wishy-washy script make “A Woman’s a Helluva Thing” much lessuva thing than it could have been. Smirking take on sex wars feels curiously dated, and thesps never gel into a coherent unit. OK-looking effort comes across as lively, occasionally amusing cable fare and not much else. Dubious title and an unexpectedly timid approach to sex — allegedly one of its central subjects — will further limit its appeal on vid shelves. Pic does give a boost, though, to lead Penelope Ann Miller, who has been wasted as coy ingenues when, on evidence, she was obviously born to play women of substance.

Here, that woman is Zane Douglas, a flame-tressed Colorado cowgirl who reps the one that got away for Houston Blackett (Angus MacFadyen), a big city men’s mag owner returning to the Rocky Mountain ranch of childhood days when his estranged mother suddenly dies. Houston’s in for a shock when he finds that mom named her lover as executor of that estate. On top of that, the lover was a woman, and to make matters worse, the woman is Zane!

This is a double whammy for our anti-hero, who’s presented as a Hugh Hefner with good looks and an underdeveloped intellect. Certainly, all he holds dear in a world of instant gratification will come into question before ownership of this particular spread is secured. Trouble is, Houston is a straw man from the start, and it takes almost nothing to set him alight. Sure, when we meet His Worship, he’s surrounded by savvy women, including a sharp reporter (Kathryn Harrold), a single mom (helmer-scripter Karen Leigh Hopkins) and a no-nonsense assistant (Mary Kay Place). But within minutes, they all appear to be rolling their eyes at his gauche behavior.

This is a bit much, since the helmer spends rest of the pic having Zane further whittle him down to size. It helps that Miller, if not the balance of things, has been given all the good lines. But even when handed bad ones, her brainy, jeans-clad beauty brings a soulful humanity to the proceedings. Ultimately, auds only care about Houston because Zane does.

MacFadyen, so good as Peter Lawford in the TV “Rat Pack,” turns on the charm, but he’s saddled with a lame character and the remnants of his own Scottish accent — feebly explained by saying he went to school “over there.” Ann-Margret is convincing as Houston’s brittle, unsympathetic stepmother, and Millie Perkins makes a nostalgic impression as his housekeeper.

Among the pic’s many gaffes and shortcuts is a wet T-shirt contest distinguished not only by the fact that everyone stays dry, but by generous coverage from a TV news crew led by Harrold, with more eye-rolling, natch.

Script needed a few more passes — one for comedy and one for logic, at the very least. Tech qualities are smooth, aside from aggressive dubbing and overly obvious music cues. Scrubby area outside of Winnipeg does a serviceable job subbing for Colorado, although a few second-unit establishing shots of craggy peaks might have helped convince viewers that they hadn’t been plunked on a prairie.

A Woman's A Helluva Thing

Production

A Regent Entertainment production. Produced by Paul Colichman, Mark R. Harris. Co-producers, Jeffrey Schenck, Aaron Kim Johnston, Jack Clements. Executive producers, Stephen P. Jarchow, Beau Rogers, David Forrest, Karen Leigh Hopkins. Directed, written by Karen Leigh Hopkins.

Crew

Camera (color), Barry Parrell; editor, Tom Costain; music, Louis Febre, Thomas Kilzer; production designer, Maurin Scarlata; art director, Gord Wilding; set decorator, Scott Rossell; costume designer, Victoria Brinkford; sound (Dolby), Warren St. Onge; assistant director, Nancy Hughes; casting, Valorie Massalas. Reviewed at Seattle Film Festival, June 13, 2001. Running time: 89 MIN.

With

Houston - Angus MacFadyen Zane - Penelope Ann Miller Claire - Ann-Margret Brandy - Kathryn Harrold Cecilia - Mary Kay Place Johnny - Barry Del Sherman Hank - Paul Dooley
With: Nicole Neith, Millie Perkins, Karen Leigh Hopkins, David Warburton, Harry Nelken, John Robinson, Dexton Fehr, Patty D. Grayson, Hillary Shepard, Nancy Drake, Tom Kilzer.

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