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Adrian Lyne is a clever, too-slick filmmaker ("9 1/2 weeks" and "Fatal Attraction"). Here, while ultimately in over his head as he tries to fathom the depths and difficulties of a complex plot (the script is by Bruce Joel Rubin, who just won the Oscar for "Ghost"), he generates some of the most terrifying screen moments of recent memory -- real jolts that go a long way toward reminding you just how visceral an impact good filmmaking can have.
In fact, if Mr. Rubin's script had been more successfully realized, less a compendium of half-baked though interesting meditations on Existence-with-a-capital-E, Mr. Lyne might have succeeded in his lofty goal of making a film that attempts to teach us something about life and death, heaven and hell. What we have instead is a decent attempt at a metaphysical horror flick by a visual stylist who should work harder to get below the surface of things.
Jacob is played by Tim Robbins, who proved he had great comic flair in "Bull Durham" and here suggests a much broader range. He's a Vietnam War veteran -- we see him wounded in some graphic war footage -- who returns home to a dim, ugly New York. But as the years go by, he can't escape the memories of the war and begins to have other visions, involving demons who seem to be following him on the streets. He wonders at first if he's nuts -- but Mr. Lyne's depiction of these events is so graphically haunting that we feel nothing but sympathy for Jacob.
His girlfriend (Elizabeth Pena) thinks the city's getting to him, but Jacob knows something else is wrong and attempts to find out. The deeper he gets, the less he understands. And ultimately, it seems as if death is the answer he's looking for. Unlike "Edward Scissorhands," in which Winona Ryder had to play second fiddle to the almost mute title character, "Mermaids" trains the spotlight on the young actress, and with fine results -- she's the best thing about the film, which otherwise seems muddled and lacking direction.
The year is 1963 (a popular year for end-of-innocence movies). Charlotte (Ms. Ryder) lives with her 7-year-old Olympic-caliber swimmer of a sister (Christina Ricci) and her very eccentric mother (Cher), who's pretty liberated for the times, but keeps moving the family from town to town because of deeper and more hidden anxieties in her own life. Charlotte, meanwhile, is terrified of her own sexual awakening. When she falls for the hulking but dense 20-ish gardener, adolescent love and lust blossom and collide with guilt, and Ms. Ryder is nearly perfect at conveying the humor, frustration and twisted emotions at the heart of such a conflict.