"The Sweetest Thing" is a comedy that starts the date in a frisky mood but sours before it's time to kiss goodnight. The combo of screwball situations and star Cameron Diaz -- whose goofiness charmed in "There's Something About Mary"-- has resulted in a movie that mimics the pics of the Farrelly brothers.

“The Sweetest Thing” is a comedy that starts the date in a frisky mood but sours before it’s time to kiss goodnight. The combo of screwball situations and star Cameron Diaz — whose goofiness charmed in “There’s Something About Mary”– has resulted in a movie that mimics the pics of the Farrelly brothers, but it’s not clear whether the original script by “South Park” scribe Nancy M. Pimenthal was stuffed with Farrelly-style gags or whether they were added later. Whatever happened, Diaz’s character, blithely operating by the dating rule that you don’t look for Mr. Right but Mr. Right Now, finds herself on an increasingly silly course, losing her charm along the way. Pic will fill the love seats in stadium theaters on opening weekend, but whether the leggy high heels can hold up is an open question.

There is a mildly funny opening montage about men soured on dates with Diaz’s Christina Walters (including a crooner spoofing “Mary’s” Jonathan Richman), and the movie’s early section is a compact portrait of big-city gals in their late 20s who are as sexually liberated, brazen and confident as possible. There’s even a sense in Christina and her lawyer roommate Courtney (an utterly matured and transformed Christina Applegate) that sex has no limits and that, unlike the slightly related kin in “Sex and the City,” they just go ahead and do it with little verbal foreplay.

That this is happening in San Francisco — depicted here as some kind of paradise for horny, single heterosexuals — appears to be due to helmer Roger Kumble’s preference for cool street locations.

Meanwhile, roomie/pal Jane’s (Selma Blair) b.f. is breaking up with her. In this sex-is-fun setting, Christina and Courtney’s remedy for Jane is to jump right back in the pool and troll for male meat at a throbbing dance club.

Pic’s charming high point is when Christina meets Peter (Thomas Jane) at the club by grabbing his butt. The charm isn’t in the grab, but in the twinkling chemistry that flows between Diaz and Jane, who must be the handsomest man in Hollywood who hasn’t earned his own starring vehicle. Pimenthal’s dialogue is snappy here as well, suggesting a lot of smart, sexy fun to come.

Peter is in town with loud-mouth bro Roger (Jason Bateman) before a wedding up in the tony Northern California burg of Somerset. Before they part, Peter invites Christina to the bash, while Courtney mercilessly rags on Christina (they’re a pair of white girls who pepper their talk with the latest in hip-hop-speak) for not going to bed with him.

Just as Peter can’t get Christina out of his mind, Christina fantasizes about him (in this libidinous pic’s only bed scene), to the point where Courtney orders her gal-pal to drive them both to the wedding. Although there have been a few detours along the way into broad, tasteless comic business (a rather gooey dry cleaner scene involving an embarrassed Jane amidst a cavalcade of stereotyped Chinese and Irish characters), pic gives way to a string of uninspired sequences of pure Farrellyana, some of which feel like filler. None of them advances the story or serve as blockades for Christina getting her man; instead, an ineptly staged wedding ceremony does that job, and not very well.

Even though pic’s intro indicates that Christina is a hottie and a ruthless heartbreaker, we never see the latter until she finally kisses Peter — and finds him rather wanting. Not even Diaz’s charms can make this rather rancid sexual athlete attractive, or even faintly amusing, in the end.

Diaz visibly enjoys playing the dominant lead, but Kumble’s laid-back direction allows her to overdo the fun stuff, as if the cutting-up preserved for an outtake reel (like the four-minute one here over closing credits) were transferred to the final cut. The sloppy giddiness infects Applegate, too, but it’s somewhat inoculated by thesp’s wisecracking cool — a pleasure to observe now that she’s not a teen sexpot.

As a third, sometimes forgotten banana, Blair is forced to do some of pic’s more disgusting bits, but they’re not nearly as shocking or funny as her dark episode in Todd Solondz’s “Storytelling.” The highly charismatic Jane is barely given the screen time he deserves, with his few minutes shared with Diaz merely as a teaser for a far funnier movie.

In a recent, disheartening trend for Hollywood comedies, pic is unattractively lit, shot and designed.

Helmer James Mangold gamely appears in one of the few straight scenes, while Applegate’s real-life hubby, thesp Johnathon Schaech, has a witty, uncredited cameo as a clubber whom Applegate hits on.

The Sweetest Thing

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation of a Konrad Pictures production. Produced by Cathy Konrad. Executive producers, Ricky Strauss, Stuart M. Besser. Directed by Roger Kumble. Screenplay, Nancy M. Pimenthal.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Anthony B. Richmond; editors, Wendy Greene Bricmont, David Rennie; music, Edward Shearmur; music supervisor, John Houlihan; production designer, John Gary Steele; art director, Gershon Ginsburg; set designers, Charisse Cardenas, Thomas F. Betts; set decorator, Maggie Martin; costume designer, Denise Wingate; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Jim Steube; supervising sound editor, John Morris; special effects coordinator, Ron Bolanowski; choreography, Robin Antin; associate producer, Dixie J. Capp; assistant director, Sam Hill; casting, Lisa Beach. Reviewed at the Bridge, L.A., March 23, 2002. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 84 MIN.

With

Christina Walters - Cameron Diaz Courtney - Christina Applegate Jane - Selma Blair Peter - Thomas Jane Roger - Jason Bateman Judy - Parker Posey
With: Georgia B. Engel, Richard Denni, James Mangold.

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