'Three's' a charm

April 30, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Just a bit of time ago -- say 40 years -- "Three of Hearts" would have been inconceivable except as a radical stunt on the farthest edge of avante-garde culture. It would have played in murky little theaters next to coffeehouses and been whispered about at faculty parties, denounced as un-American by critics and probably banned in all cities whose names begin with a B.

But now what commends the film to attention and bespeaks its considerable level of accomplishment is its fundamental conservatism. Other than the sexual attitudes (of which no big deal need by made) it's pure '50s melodrama at its best: a small cast in a believable world, a well-defined premise out of which evolve all sorts of amusing narrative complications building toward a denouement of bittersweet poignancy. Why, I do believe it's called . . . storytelling.

The setting is Manhattan, but not sleek, debauched Manhattan or even ironic, intellectual Manhattan. Rather, it's in that other threadbare and shoddy city of the scuffling lower-middle class trying to keep a nostril above the brine and have a little fun now and then.

The lanky, believable Kelly Lynch portrays Connie, a gay nurse, who is hopelessly in love. She plays home movies and watches the flickering images on the screen with the utter pain of loss draining her features of expression, because Ellen has left her. The bisexual Ellen (Sherilyn Fenn), a prim and somewhat prissy English comp teacher at NYU, is confused about her identity, her needs and Connie's suffocating affection. This leaves Connie in the lurch: She was planning to come out to her large Polish family at a wedding on Long Island. Now she doesn't even have a date!

Desperate, Connie hires Joe (William Baldwin), a sleazy, charming "male escort" whose reptilian motto is, "Any woman, any place, any time." But Joe and Connie -- once they get their agendas straight -- get along in an amusingly needling brother-sister fashion. So then Connie hires Joe to seduce Ellen, break her heart and drive her back to Connie. But . . . Joe falls in love with Connie.

All this is handled with a great deal of easygoing charm. The

movie never seems forced or shaped for commercial considerations, and there aren't jangling cutting rhythms or driving musical riffs to propel the story along. The story just seems to happen, like life. Even the melodramatic conceits -- Joe being pursued by a thug who thinks Joe betrayed him, and this drives him to move in with Connie -- seem natural and unforced.

The director, Yurek Bogayevicz, has a great feel for the edgy, often seemingly lateral movements within the overall framework of a relationship. I particularly liked the way Joe and Connie's friendship developed, not sentimentally but rigorously, full of doubts and teases and brittle little hostilities, but nevertheless heartfelt. One could feel the affection between the two.

Bogayevicz's sureness of touch only deserts him in one area of the story. The ploy that Joe takes to meet Ellen is to sign up for her class. But nobody associated with the movie seems to have any idea what an actual English comp class is like, and what they come up with is sublimely ludicrous. Ellen appears to be teaching "Softcore Porn 101," by assigning her students to write salacious letters to their lovers. She then stands in front of her class and rhapsodizes passionately about the needs and wants in a sexual relationship. Yeah, right, in this era of academic political correctness!

The performances are uniformly excellent. I never thought much of William Baldwin after an unpleasant interview experience some years back (for "Backdraft") but in this film, his preening, brainless vanity is of great use, particularly as he peels it back and exposes what's underneath -- more preening, brainless vanity. I like that in a man. Lynch is terrific. This is a performance completely without vanity, for her Connie is a romantic yearner but never a beauty. One feels her sinking wholly into the role, without a whisper of an investment in what it'll do for her career. (It'll probably do a lot.) Fenn is a bit cloying at first, but finally gets Ellen's essential sweetness.

In all, "Three of Hearts" is a major surprise and delight, not because it's a love story about two lesbians and a gigolo but because it's about three human beings.

"Three of Hearts"

Starring William Baldwin, Kelly Lynch and Sherilyn Fenn.

Directed by Yurek Bogayevicz.

Released by New Line.

Rated R.

***

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