The same quirky, offbeat sensibility that defined "Manny & Lo," Lisa Krueger's feature debut, is evident in "Committed," except that what was fresh and entertaining in the 1996 film is now strained and occasionally irritating.

Joline - Heather Graham Jay - Casey Affleck Carl - Luke Wilson Neil - Goran Visnjic Carmen - Patricia Velasquez Grampy - Alfonso Arau T-Bo - Mark Ruffalo Jenny - Kim Dickens Mimi - Clea Duvall

The same quirky, offbeat sensibility that defined “Manny & Lo,” Lisa Krueger’s feature debut, is evident in “Committed,” except that what was fresh and entertaining in the 1996 film is now strained and occasionally irritating. Heather Graham gets a chance to expand her range in a romantic comedy that explores the irrational devotion of a young married woman — not so much to her erring husband as to the notion of commitment itself. Vibrant lensing by helmer’s brother, Tom Krueger, which was cited by the grand jury at Sundance, and colorful production design bring some life to this road movie, but Miramax should expect modest returns for a film that’s likely to be perceived as no more than an amusing trifle.

A subscriber to bourgeois mores, Joline (Graham) is committed to the idea of an everlasting marriage. She’s therefore shocked when her husband, Carl (Luke Wilson), suddenly departs, leaving behind a brief note that vaguely explains his motivation. Undeterred, and refusing to feel sorry for herself, she initially considers her abandonment a minor problem, one more hurdle in a lifelong struggle to retain her faith and ideals.

What’s a girl to do? Rising to the challenge, Joline sets out from New York City on a cross-country journey to track Carl down and bring him back to his senses. For a while, there’s charm in the “predictable” adventures of a very beautiful, very urban woman out in the wild West, forced to deal with such inconveniences as a flat tire and assorted weirdos.

Most of the story is set in El Paso, Texas, where Joline finds her hubby, now romantically involved with a hot Latina, Carmen (Patricia Velasquez). Soon Jay (a terrific Casey Affleck), Joline’s tattoo-flaunting, ever-seductive brother from New York, joins his sister, and together they keep track of Carl’s whereabouts.

In what’s meant to be a spoof of the notion of conquering the land, Joline sets up house in the wilderness, to the shock of the locals residents and authorities. Reworking the mythology of the American West, Joline embodies the duality of a woman who’s both a thorny cactus and a beautiful rose.

Two men enter Joline’s life in the desert: Neil (Goran Visnjic), Carl’s handsome, tantalizing neighbor, who becomes romantically intrigued, and Grampy (renowned Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Arau), a Mexican medicine man who believes in miracles and becomes Joline’s spiritual guide.

Pic presents all its interesting ideas in the first two reels: the limits of faith and the notion of marriage as the last arena in which people can explore their values. But after an hour, the romantic tale becomes redundant, with scripter Krueger struggling for inspiration — and viewers quickly losing interest in her idiosyncratic protagonist. Too long a time elapses before Joline regains her senses, and Krueger stretches her fable’s central issues — the fine line between faith and madness, between commitment and getting committed — to the limits of patience. Nonetheless, pic’s denouement is both emotionally and ideologically satisfying.

Graham has shown before (in “Boogie Nights” and “Two Guys and a Girl”) that, when challenged, she can hold her own in ensemble-driven yarns, but she’s seldom occupied center screen. Here, she gets to exhibit various facets of her screen persona to advantage: overt sexuality, vulnerability and unpredictability, but also intelligence and common sense; Joline may be naive, but she can be pushed only so far. Colorful supporting cast enriches the landscape, especially Affleck as the eccentric but ultimately loyal brother; Wilson as the confused husband who’s both pathetic and touching; and Visnjic as the sensual macho guy who knows how to approach a lady.

Far more than the script or the characterizations, strong production values suggest what must have been Krueger’s vision: to spin a modern comedy about the eternal search for permanent love, in the mold of “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” with the mystical desert of the Southwest substituting for Shakespeare’s enchanted forest.

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Production: A Miramax release and presentation of a Dean Silvers/Marlen Hecht production. Produced by Silvers, Hecht. Executive producers, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Jonathan Gordon, Amy Slotnick. Co-producer, Guy J. Louthan. Directed, written by Lisa Krueger.

Crew: Camera (color), Tom Krueger; editor, Colleen Sharp; music, Calexico; music supervisor, Stephen E. Smith; production designer, Sharon Lomofsky; art director, Timothy Whidbee; set decorator, Lisa Kent; costume designer, Beth Pasternak; sound (Dolby), Robert Eber; assistant director, Adam Escott; casting, Billy Hopkins, Suzanne Smith, Kerry Barden. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan 22, 2000. Running time: 98 MIN.

With: Joline - Heather Graham Jay - Casey Affleck Carl - Luke Wilson Neil - Goran Visnjic Carmen - Patricia Velasquez Grampy - Alfonso Arau T-Bo - Mark Ruffalo Jenny - Kim Dickens Mimi - Clea Duvall

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