'Untamed Heart' misses too many beats

February 12, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Here's the good news about "Untamed Heart": Marisa Tomei.

Here's the bad news about "Untamed Heart": "Untamed Heart."

One of those infernally condescending "little people" movies that Hollywood always mucks up, it features Tomei as a heartsick Minneapolis waitress who one day meets the guy of her dreams. OK, so -- he's a dog: a mute busboy with a heart defect.

Tomei is wonderful. The performance is in a whole other note from her devastatingly funny debut in "My Cousin Vinny" last spring. Gone is the Queens comic shtick, the whining adenoidal honk, the showy body language. Instead, before us is a new being, Midwestern to the core -- a working-class young woman full to brimming with dreams of love but not at all sure how to find it. I loved the accent: It's got just a slight twang to it, a little lilt, and the line readings break up now and then out of breathlessness or fear or enthusiasm. And her face: I doubt you've seen a face this alive in a movie, the way it dances effortlessly through expressions without ever seeming to work.

It's an amazingly unsentimental performance, and yet vulnerable an eggshell just the same. Tomei's Caroline ("Car-o-line," her exasperated friends are always moaning) is a mess: She can't hold a man and can just barely hold a job. But she's eternally

optimistic and as sweet as a chocolate-covered cherry. Without a lot of artifice or showy fretwork, Tomei gets us quickly to Caroline's fundamental decency. Her yearning is heartbreaking, her dead-on quicksilver transitions from humor to pathos literally astonishing.

It seems almost sacrilegious to have someone this real in a movie this fake.

Set largely in a diner that's photographed as if it's actually a sleek Manhattan nightclub that goofs on the '50s, where everybody's a "character," it watches as the hurting Caroline is one night saved from rape by Adam (Christian Slater), the nearly mute busboy, who, it turns out, has had a crush on her for months.

The Adam character, however gamely the plucky Slater struggles with him, is utter sentimental hokum and his internal contradictions reduce the movie to shambles. He seems to be someone's idea of a wild child, an orphan boy who's grown up almost untouched by civilization. Yet he harbors a fierce poetic streak, carves cute little wood ducks and even believes he has the heart of a baboon. So what's he doing working in a Minneapolis beanery? The movie doesn't begin to have an idea.

Slater's performance is reduced entirely to gropings and mumblings, as he looks up shyly from his mop and is bewildered to find himself in an actual movie. It's a passive performance, as ++ the script dictates; but why hire a demonic presence like Slater if you're not going to permit him to dazzle you with charisma? Worse, when he talks, the script supplies him with nothing but banalities. You have no sense at all of a personality and for the life of you, you cannot figure out what Tomei might be attracted to: There's no there there.

The script pushes these two characters through a series of artificial crises, including convenient rapes and knife attacks by thugs to get the story moving along, building to the revelation that Adam has a congenital heart defect. It has no time for or interest in Caroline's parents or Adam's background, and the only other character the movie gives any time to is Rosie Perez as Caroline's "best friend." What is she even doing in this movie, with her dense New York accent and attitude? (She seems a remnant from the film's origins as a New Jersey story).

"Untamed Heart," in the end, is about as meek as they come.

"Untamed Heart"

Starring Christian Slater and Marisa Tomei.

Directed by Tony Bill.

Released by MGM.

Rated R.

... **

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