'Twenty-One' focuses on aimless, emotionless life of '90s youth

MOVIES

November 15, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

When A. E. Housman's Shropshire lad was one-and-twenty he heard a wise man say, give pounds and crowns and guineas, but not your heart away. And when Don Boyd's London lass was one-and-twenty, she heard a wise man -- actually, it was more of a wise guy--say, let's go to bed.

She said yes. He was married, but what the hell, her real boyfriend was a smack addict and couldn't manage erections and her fake boyfriend, a Jamaican singer, didn't turn her on enough to have sex with. And if that isn't some indication of how young 21 used to be and how old it now is, I don't know what could be.

Boyd's "Twenty-One," with Patsy Kensit starring as the luckless London lass, is conceived as a young woman's candid memoir of youth in the '90s, unshorn of romance, sentiment and delusion. In fact its most remarkable aspect is its evenness of tone: Katie just prattles on without making distinctions or recording highs and lows or learning much. If she's growing, she doesn't notice it. Not even death appears to have much sting.

The movie may remind some older viewers of the great "Alfie," which made Michael Caine a star. It may make Kensit one. The device is the same: Kensit's Katie walks us through her life, pausing frequently to baldly explain -- or at least justify -- herself to the camera (us), and going from man to man in a heartbreakingly casual way. (Doesn't she understand how special she is?)

But "Alfie" was more formally shaped, and employed a sophisticated irony that is utterly beyond Boyd. Where Caine emerged as a womanizing swine blithely unaware of his own patheticness, Katie is just . . . well, irreducible. She's Katie.

Kensit will be familiar to Americans as the sacrificial blond decoration on Mel Gibson's arm in "Lethal Weapon II," the one that ended up swimming in concrete Nikes. The performance here is something of a knockout: It's so vividly authentic that it seems to transcend performance at all.

Her life is as messy as my desk, and that, brothers and sisters, is very messy. A London secretary, she's carrying on with the moony Scotsman Bobby (Rufus Sewell), a co-worker with a monkey on his back. She loves his angelic face and would love him all the more if he wasn't always shooting up. He's incapable of anything except making goo-goo eyes and disappointing her.

For sex, she hooks up with Jack (Patrick Ryecart), a married barrister with blond hair, a Jaguar and a huge appetite for her. He's pure swine but that's all right: She knows. She gets companionship from Baldie (Maynard Eziashi), who adores her but will not touch her. What do you get the girl who has everything? What about a new life?

That's the thrust of "Twenty-One" -- it watches as Katie glides her way to a new life in New York, though that outcome is hardly inspirational. The new life looks like the old life in a new place. It's still the same old Katie, goal-less, decent, deserving of so much more if only for a second she'd try and figure out what that might be. Whoever said youth was too precious to be wasted on the young didn't know the half of it.

'Twenty-One'

Starring Patsy Kensit.

Directed by Don Boyd.

Released by Triton.

Rated R.

... **

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