WATCHING THE fascinating ''Reversal of Fortune'' is a little like watching ''GoodFellas,'' Martin Scorsese's comedy-drama about a young man and his life as a Mafia hood.
Much of the dialogue in ''Reversal of Fortune'' is extremely witty and funny, but when you laugh, you wonder why.
This is, after all, the story of Claus Von Bulow, the man who was convicted then acquitted of attempting to murder his wife, Sunny Von Bulow.
Of course, it is difficult to have that much feeling for the victim as portrayed in the film. She seems to have had a death wish of sorts. According to the movie, one that is based on the book by attorney and Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, Sunny Von Bulow was into everything, booze and drugs.
She apparently attempted suicide several times, and money may have been her curse. She lived in a mansion in Newport, R.I., and when she met Von Bulow, she was married to a young man who was sleeping with a procession of young women.
As the film begins, we meet Von Bulow after he has been convicted of the attempted murder of his wife by giving her an overdose of insulin. Von Bulow insists that he is innocent and asks Dershowitz, played with winning style by Ron Silver, to find new evidence that would lead to a new trial.
Dershowitz, who believes Von Bulow to be guilty, finally agrees to take the case, and when he does, assembles an army of bright minds to help him find evidence necessary to warrant a new trial.
We always know the outcome, but this doesn't take from the suspense of the film, one that has been artfully directed by Barbet Schroeder. Schroeder, German born, directed ''Barfly,'' but there was nothing in that movie to prepare us for the quality of this film, one that has the victim speak as we see her comatose, in bed.
There are, of course, flashbacks, some of which are prompted by Von Bulow and some by his wife who, as played by Glenn Close, is thoroughly believable. If you had any doubts about the versatility of this woman, ''Reversal of Fortune'' should settle them.
Jeremy Irons is Von Bulow. As such, he is monumentally smug and droll. He is also immensely funny, even when he tells Dershowitz that he has always admired the ''integrity of the Jews.''
Von Bulow is an enigma with a sense of humor, and that's exactly the way Irons plays him. Dershowitz is a man of exceptional cunning, and that's the way Silvers plays him. Their performances, and that of Close, will probably win Oscar nominations.
Some of the humor is gallows. The law students working with Dershowitz wear T-shirts saying ''Black Bag'' and ''Insulin Injection.''
At a pick-up dinner, one at which Von Bulow sees the students devour the food he would like to eat, he tells a few jokes about himself. ''What do you give a woman who has everything?'' he asks. ''An insulin injection'' is the answer.
''Reversal of Fortune'' walks a very fine line between good and bad taste and makes it. It is definitely a movie of the '90s. No one would have dared do a film of this kind a few decades ago, and today, after seeing the film, one still wonders how it was made while so many of the principals are still alive.
''Reversal of Fortune'' opens here today. It is consistently
diverting as it searches for what may be the truth.
Does it settle the man's guilt?
No, it doesn't. You may think before seeing the film that Von Bulow is a wife killer. You may leave the theater, however, not knowing what to believe.
''Reversal of Fortune'' **** Ron Silver is a Harvard-trained attorney who wins Claus Von Bulow a new trial after he has been convicted of attempting to murder his wife.
CAST: Glenn Close, Jeremy Irons, Ron Silver, Annabella Sciorra, Uta Hagen, Christine Baranski.
DIRECTOR: Barbet Schroeder
RATING: PG-13 (language)
RUNNING TIME: 115 minutes