Glad to be a gigolo, until the end, that is Movie review: "A Thin Line" watches as bad boy plays, and then pays the price.

April 03, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Martin Lawrence's "A Thin Line Between Love and Hate" is a stroll down the boulevard -- "Sunset Boulevard," that is.

At least as a director Lawrence shows a level of taste that has evaded him so far as a performer: His choice of the great Billy Wilder classic as a model upon which to construct his own first film both honors Wilder and enables him to distinguish himself with an astute and even courageous bit of filmmaking.

The movie opens in direct tribute of "Sunset Boulevard," re-creating that film's most notorious stroke: It is, evidently, to be narrated by a body floating face down in a swimming pool, recounting the tale of greed, folly and ambition that got him there. The only difference in this version is that a new vice is added, one that could hardly be conceived in 1950: the vice of sexism.

As Lawrence's apparently dead Darnell Wright floats in the chlorine, he recalls his misspent life as a player. That is, he liked the ladies. He had the gift of gab. No lie was too big to tell, no stratagem too mean-spirited to employ, no gambit too ruthless to unleash. It all slipped out of his golden mouth with the smoothness of a diamond soaked in butter.

The portrait of urban man as hustler is surprisingly amusing, but it's not without a fair share of edge. One is amused at the character's ruthless audacity but also horrified. Lawrence, who co-wrote as well as stars in and directs the film, gets a great deal of comic energy out of his own portrayal, but he doesn't quite endorse it: We see a man dangerously consumed by appetite, a man who has no place on the moral compass and a man who is fundamentally a social pathology. He does nobody any good. He isn't the solution, he's the problem, Jack.

The beginning of the end for Darnell arrives one morning when he sees Brandi Web (Lynn Whitfield of HBO's "The Josephine Baker Story"). She is everything a man could dream about but something few enough of them ever manage to connect with, if even for a second.

Drop-dead beautiful, smart, rich, willful, independent, classy, she's the real thing. Naturally Darnell must have her; naturally he will do anything to get her, including violate his own one remaining moral imperative, which is never to use the L-word. If that's the only way to the lady's boudoir, then Darnell will even commit that blasphemy.

Once he becomes Brandi's plaything, Darnell is dressed and fussed and smothered in luxury, just as Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond handled William Holden's Joe Gillis all those years ago. There's even a scene in a men's shop where she has him tailored to the nines, and he stands there, shorn of manhood like any obedient gigolo.

But the love of a good woman saves him. Mia (Regina King) rescues Darnell from his own worst instincts, but it's too late. Scorned, Brandi becomes a furiously devious antagonist, determined to take him down for his disloyalty.

This shrieking change in tone may shock some, as the movie almost becomes a gloss on "Fatal Attraction," but the lesson is well-preached: Don't lie. Don't use. Don't abuse. Don't take for granted. Think with your thinker, not any other part of your anatomy.

Lawrence, known far and wide for the scabrousness of his material, is really teaching an old Baptist lesson here, but the film has too much fun while it's unspooling to hit you over the head with its moral sense.

It doesn't have quite the guts or the edge of the Wilder antecedent, but it's very nicely made.

'A Thin Line Between Love and Hate'

Starring Martin Lawrence and Lynn Whitfield

Directed by Martin Lawrence

Released by New Line

Rated R (profanity, violence, sexual material)

Sun score ***

Pub Date: 4/03/96

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