Watching 'Exit to Eden' an exercise in sadomasochism

October 18, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

At some point in its misty origins, "Exit to Eden" was evidently a soft-core porn novel by Anne Rice, exploring the spicy but rarely observed world of sadomasochistic sex. It turned on a melancholy dominatrix and her redemption at the ministrations of an idealistic lover. But how it went from that to this -- a crass, tasteless, witless Rosie O'Donnell picture -- is hard to imagine. Worse, why bother?

Directed as if in a stupor by Garry Marshall, it's become a lame "Dragnet" parody that assumes there are three people left in the world who remember what "Dragnet" was and consider it worth parodying. It's about as spicy as toothpaste and its take on the sadomasochistic lifestyle is restricted to titters and giggles.

By plot manipulations too puerile to detail, it manages to get a world-class diamond smuggler and his gun moll (Stuart Wilson and Iman) plus two pursuing detectives (Dan Aykroyd and O'Donnell) to an expensive resort-brothel that caters to the sexually dysfunctional.

The goal of both teams is a young photographer (the Australian )) Paul Mercurio from "Strictly Ballroom") who has accidentally snapped the only picture of the smuggler since the fourth grade. But the photographer is so cute and peppy, he has attracted the attentions of Mistress Lisa, the dominatrix of the place, played by Dana Delany.

This was originally conceived as part of Delany's image-retool, from the glum little good soldier of "China Beach" to a voluptuous, textured, erotically potent major actress. For six months, the studio leaked photos of her in her bossy-lady ensemble, complete with very high heels, gartered black stockings, whips and a bustier that made her look like a smorgasbord in Valhalla.

Alas, for a dominatrix, she's still a glum little good soldier. Perhaps that's why she's just about disappeared from the movie's current publicity campaign, which now shills "Exit to Eden" strictly as an Aykroyd-O'Donnell vehicle and doesn't even mention the main Delany-Mercurio plot. In fact, O'Donnell does a Joe Friday imitation as she narrates the movie in that brazen Long Island musical comedy voice that's so booming it drives away what little subtlety may have lingered in Delany's performance.

But then there's nothing in the Mercurio-Delany relationship that intrigues. He seems entirely too callow for her, too young and flip, too cute; we never sense any connection, erotic or intellectual or emotional, between them. They seem like eighth-graders.

That leaves two other areas of interest. First is the resort itself, called "Eden" and never made remotely believable. Don't think of it as Club Med with sex, but as the Holiday Inn with pretend sex.

The physical design of the place is tacky and grotesque, but, worse, it never makes any kind of emotional sense. It's a resort where people with perfect bodies go to submit to people without perfect bodies -- now there's a stretch -- and pay for it, no less. Why or how this should occur is entirely beyond the movie's curiosity. Instead, it's delivered in the cheerily perspectiveless genericness with which Marshall treated prostitution in "Pretty Woman," but with absolutely no compensating charm.

Secondly, O'Donnell is becoming the Jerry Lewis of the '90s. She's loud, she's crude, she hogs every shot, but that's OK because she's never funny or endearing.

Oddly enough, what honor is to be found in "Exit to Eden" defaults to Aykroyd, who at least stays in character, and seems marginally believable. Can it be that after all these years, the old "Saturday Night Live" sketch master has actually learned how to act?

MOVIE REVIEW

"Exit to Eden"

Starring Rosie O'Donnell and Dan Aykroyd

Directed by Garry Marshall

Released by Savoy

Rated R

*1 1/2

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