Teaming a middle-aged Chicago housewife, a sulky, younger Brit mourning his gay lover and a sassy dwarf on a hunt for a serial killer, "Unconditional Love" is a misconceived comedy that despite a warmly empathetic performance from Kathy Bates, never makes its characters' unorthodox chemistry gel.

Teaming a middle-aged Chicago housewife, a sulky, younger Brit mourning his gay lover and a sassy dwarf on a hunt for a serial killer, “Unconditional Love” is a misconceived comedy that despite a warmly empathetic performance from Kathy Bates, never makes its characters’ unorthodox chemistry gel. Released in Italy in May as “Together by Chance,” the New Line pic has languished on the shelf in the U.S. since 2001 and will bypass a theatrical run to premiere Aug. 2 via cable provider Starz! Encore.

P.J. Hogan achieved success with the broad ugly-duckling comedy “Muriel’s Wedding” and the subverted romantic comedy “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” but has hit a roadblock with this third feature, which seems unsure what kind of comedy it wants to be. While the film to a certain degree becomes progressively more engaging and its distancing incongruities eventually start to matter less, the insurmountable problem in the script by Hogan and writing-producing partner Jocelyn Moorhouse is perhaps an overload of story ideas lacking in overall harmony.

Grace Beasley’s (Bates) marriage dissolves abruptly when husband Max (Dan Aykroyd) declares he needs to feel more alive. Parallel to this, Victor Fox (Jonathan Pryce), a Welsh lounge crooner who’s like a Tom Jones-Elvis hybrid, is murdered by the so-called Chicago Crossbow Killer. Unbeknownst to his legions of adoring female fans worldwide, Victor was gay. His longtime companion Dirk (Rupert Everett) is engaged in a battle for the estate with Victor’s estranged family, led by imperious sister Nola (Lynn Redgrave).

Looking to Victor’s Chicago concert as the only spot of hope on her post-Max horizon, Grace is devastated by the singer’s murder. Seeking closure, she flies off on impulse to Wales for the funeral. Grace meets Dirk and, after overcoming his initial resistance, the unlikely couple returns to Chicago together to hunt Victor’s killer, embracing the danger that’s been missing from their lives lived in the shadow of other men.

With a lighter, more consistent touch, this might have made for good screwy comedy with a mystery element. Instead, it just seems poorly planned. Bates’ tender characterization and Aykroyd’s equally touching one make Grace’s emotional arc register strongly, but this seriocomedy is polluted by the mess of surrounding elements.

Everett did his best comic work for Hogan in “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” But here, the actor never really conveys Dirk’s loss, and the script denies the character a clear-cut take on the unresolved issues of his relationship with Victor or his means of coming to terms with the man’s death.

While it fits with Hogan’s agenda about misfits finding a place, the inclusion in the scenario of Grace’s height-challenged daughter-in-law Maudey (Meredith Eaton) feels like excess baggage. Eaton is often funny and her character’s over-compensating aggressive attitude makes her a good comic creation, but one that doesn’t fit this movie. She also seems clumsily defined, her ballsy, fearless spirit conflicting with her anxiety attacks.

Even more wedged in and tonally jarring are scenes in which Julie Andrews makes fun of herself in an obvious, somewhat undignified way, singing “Getting to Know You” to calm flight passengers during air turbulence and again during a funeral riot. Similarly clunky is the belabored wrap-up scene, which selects an easy target in daytime talk shows, wheeling out Sally Jessy Raphael and Barry Manilow to participate in Grace’s moment in the spotlight.

While the Abba numbers in “Muriel’s Wedding” or the Dionne Warwick homage in Hogan’s second film added buoyancy, the musical interludes here seem a desperate bid to inject some campy fun.

Lenser Remi Adefarasin underlines the visual distinction between Chicago’s cold steel-and-glass towers and grimy underground areas and the misty green countryside of Wales. An experienced stage singer who crooned previously onscreen in “Evita,” Pryce does a fine job on the many old standards that pepper the soundtrack and have more of a legitimate function than the Andrews and Manilow songs.

Unconditional Love

Production

A Starz! Pictures/New Line Cinema presentation of a Jerry Zucker/Jocelyn Moorhouse production. Produced by Zucker, Moorhouse, Patricia Whitcher. Executive producers, Michael De Luca, Brian Witten, Gil Netter. Directed by P.J. Hogan. Screenplay, Jocelyn Moorhouse, Hogan.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Remi Adefarasin; editor, Robert C. Jones; music, James Newton Howard; production designer, Richard Sylbert; art director, Mark L. Sylbert; set decorator, Daniel B. Clancy; costume designer, Mary Vogt; sound (SDDS/Dolby Digitial/DTS), Hank Garfield; assistant director, George Parra; casting, Billy Hopkins, Suzanne Smith, Kery Barden. Reviewed on DVD, New York, June 27, 2003. Running time: 121 MIN.

With

Grace Beasley - Kathy Bates Dirk Simpson - Rupert Everett Maudey - Meredith Eaton Window Washer - Peter Sarsgaard Nola Fox - Lynn Redgrave Harriet Fox-Smith - Stephanie Beacham Barry Moore - Richard Briers Lynette Fox-Moore - Marcia Warren Andrew - Jake Noseworthy Pete - Dan Wyllie Max Beasley - Dan Aykroyd Victor Fox - Jonathan Pryce
With: Julie Andrews, Barry Manilow, Sally Jessy Raphael.

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