April 23, 1999

At The Movies: 'Goodby Lover'

By Christy Lemire

``Image is everything,'' is the battle cry Ben Dunmore offers in the dark comedy/thriller ``Goodbye Lover.''

Apparently, it's also the motto of the people who made this film. They've created a visually sleek, often clever movie that's too caught up in the way it looks to realize it is taking a few plot twists too many.

Don Johnson is Ben Dunmore, an older, smarmy public relations executive version of his Sonny Crockett character on ``Miami Vice.'' He's perfectly tanned and coifed at all times, and he has an insatiable sexual appetite - especially for young female co-workers.

Ben is having a kinky affair with Sandra (Patricia Arquette) - churchgoing real estate agent by day, sociopath nymphomaniac by night. She has listened to her Anthony Robbins self-help tapes so many times, she can recite the words along with him. And her propensity for cranking up ``The Sound of Music'' soundtrack for inspiration makes Julie Andrews' sweet soprano sound like pure evil.

Sandra is married to Ben's younger brother Jake (Dermot Mulroney), who also works at the PR firm but lately has had a little trouble showing up sober at the office. Even when he's throwing drunken tantrums, he still looks fashionable.

One night, Jake discovers the affair, goes berserk and threatens to throw himself from the balcony of his high-rise apartment. But when Ben rushes there to try to stop him, somehow Ben ends up taking the plunge. And whaddya know - Ben had taken out a $2 million insurance policy, with Jake as the sole beneficiary.

Sorting through all the scheming is Detective Rita Pompano, played by Ellen DeGeneres with a bad mousey-brown dye job that makes her look like Alice, the maid from ``The Brady Bunch.'' She's the cynical, quick-witted cop who says she joined the force because, ``Every once in a while I get to shoot someone.''

All these people desperately seek the good life, and for a taste of it they do whatever it takes and align themselves with whomever they must. Appropriately enough, the story takes place in ``a sun-dappled metropolis'' that looks remarkably like Los Angeles, the perfect place for these greedy, self-absorbed characters to thrive.

Roland Joffe's direction is visually enthralling, using long, sultry pans to caress Arquette from her stiletto heels to her cropped, platinum bob. Joffe has done a terrific job of creating a cold, hard, fabulously hip world for his characters. Everything is brushed steel and floor-to ceiling glass, retro Italian furniture and funky lighting.

Mirrors are everywhere to highlight the characters' narcissism. They constantly catch their own reflections in a rearview mirror, a store window, a glass tabletop.

Other images are disjointed. We see Jake through a camera viewfinder while he and Sandra are having sex - and meanwhile, she's watching herself in a handheld mirror. Ben spies Sandra through beveled glass at a garden party. Several characters are shot from beneath a glass table.

All of this is visually stimulating, and the technique enhances the film's edgy feel. But it works only slightly to disguise the fact that, somewhere along the way, the plot gets too confusing. Some twists are creative, but others are jarring, forcing you to stop paying attention to figure out what just happened.

DeGeneres' has fine comedic timing and gets some of the best lines in the film.

But Arquette is by far the most watchable actor on the screen. Writers Ron Peer, Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow create in Sandra an enigma - part choir girl, part sex kitten, part ruthless homicidal schemer. Arquette plays all of Sandra's complex personalities to the hilt without going over the top.

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