From toddler to temptress

May 30, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"Poison Ivy" is less a movie than a career move, which is fortunate, because it is a good career move but a bad movie.

The career being moved belongs to Drew Barrymore, the adorable toddler of "E. T." back in 1982. As all children insist upon doing, damn their insolence, she has grown up, and "Poison Ivy" showcases the semi-adult Barrymore in a semi-adult role.

Does the name Lolita ring a bell? Lo. Lee. Ta? Light of an older man's life, in Vladimir Nabokov's famous novel, fire of his loins, his sin, his soul and obviously the inspiration for director Katt Shea Ruben's sordid, soggy tale of a teen nymphet seducing another oh-so-seduceable older man. Ruben goes so far as to photograph Barrymore peering coyly over sunglasses, her bee-stung lips red-rosy as damp Jujubes, exactly as Stanley Kubrick photographed Sue Lyon (whom Barrymore greatly resembles) in the movie version of "Lolita" in 1962.

But allusions to Kubrick and Nabokov are as classy as "Poison Ivy" gets. Under its pretensions, the film is just another tale of usurpation, most similar to "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle." What it reflects is more interesting than what it is: a sense of the nuclear family's utter fragility beneath the pressures of an irrational and temptation-rich world.

Barrymore, who does boast the amazingly elastic ability to go from scrungy to beautiful in the space of a few frames, plays an orphan at a "special" school who befriends Sylvie (Sara Gilbert), the troubled daughter of a prosperous television station manager. Both are flamboyantly dysfunctional, but Sylvie isn't psycho like Ivy. When Sylvie takes Ivy home and Ivy notes the big house, the handsome dad (Tom Skerritt, who has wrinkled better than any other man in Hollywood) and the dying wife (Cheryl Ladd), she sees an opportunity to move on up.

Those whom she fails to seduce she kills. To add a note of polymorphous perversity, she not only becomes Sylvie's sister and mother, but takes a pass at becoming her first lover, too, though the sequence is so discreetly photographed you'll probably be thinking, "Huh? What's going on?"

But the movie suffers from a case of terminal murk; it's full of gaudy psychological effects that never come off, and Skerritt, still a really interesting performer, has almost nothing to do but look perturbed.

As for Barrymore, she's one of the rare movie performers awarded a second 15 minutes. Let's hope she uses it wisely, or it will vanish as quickly as the first.

'Poison Ivy'

Starring Drew Barrymore.

Directed by Katt Shea Ruben.

Released by Fine Line.

Rated R.

... **

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