'Out Loud' uneven, but Queen Latifah's a jewel

November 06, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Here's how you spot a movie star: No matter how many actors are on the screen with her, no matter how much more technically prepared they may be, she commands the viewer's attention. When she's on, you never want her to leave; if she does, you want her to come back. The camera loves her; the movie curls up and dies without her.

All of that describes Queen Latifah. Unfortunately, she is not the star of "Living Out Loud," Richard LaGravenese's contemporary romantic drama. That role is played by Holly Hunter, who delivers an oddly uneven performance of a recently divorced woman striking out on her own in New York.

Although "Living Out Loud" -- which LaGravenese directed from his own script -- has moments of rueful insight and wry humor, it succeeds only fitfully, in large part due to the decision to cast Hunter as an Upper East Side yuppie doyenne. The well-groomed precincts of Fifth Avenue never quite jibe with Hunter's down-home persona, no matter how flossy her hair or shiny her pearls.

Hunter plays Judith Nelson, whom we meet just as she's confronting her husband (Martin Donovan) about an affair. Judith throws the bum out and keeps their stylish uptown co-op, where she dances alone to jazz standards, orders in junk food and worries about ending up "old and wrinkled in Queens."

But not for long. One of the things "Living Out Loud" has going for it is LaGravenese's depiction of a newly single woman's tentative steps toward a life of her own, steps that can be as invigorating as they are terrifying.

"Living Out Loud" has its share of improbabilities: Do we really believe the girlish Hunter is dump-able for a younger woman? Would she venture into a jazz club alone and drink several strong cocktails there? But Judith's explorations are vicariously intriguing.

Although Judith is the center of "Living Out Loud," the film's strongest performances come from its supporting players. Danny DeVito brings a welcome pathos to the role of the elevator man with whom Judith (again improbably) strikes up a nascent romance. And Latifah, as the house singer at Judith's favorite jazz haunt, effectively steals the show. Reprising the vintage look of a '60s R&B diva, Latifah acts as a gravitational force to Hunter's more scattered energies, the embodiment of female power at its most intuitive and self-contained.

As smoothly as he handles Judith's interior scenarios, LaGravenese's storytelling is static, and "Living Out Loud" never quite overcomes its own awkwardness. But he can also boast of making a movie studded with small gems, whether in his own observations or in one very formidable singer with an appropriately regal name.

'Living Out Loud'

Starring Holly Hunter, Danny DeVito, Queen Latifah

Directed by Richard LaGravenese

Released by New Line Cinema

Rated R (language and for sexuality and drug content)

Running time: 100 minutes

Sun score: ** 1/2

Pub Date: 11/06/98

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