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Streep a surprising success in She-Devil

SHE-DEVIL

Directed by Susan Seidelman.

Based on a novel by Fay Weldon.

Starring Roseanne Barr, Meryl

Streep, and Ed Begley, Jr.

Now playing at Loews Theaters.

By MICHELLE PERRY

RUTH PATCHETT is an unattractive housewife whose life revolves around her husband Bob and her children. Mary Fisher is a pretty, rich, thin romance novelist whose 32 passionate best sellers are based on her own romantic research. When Bob and Mary meet at a literary party it is lust at first sight, and Bob leaves his wife to live with Mary in her palatial home by the sea. Ruth vows to avenge herself by systematically destroying Bob's assets: his home, his family, his career, and his freedom.

This sounds like a promising setup for a comedy, and director Susan Seidelman has had previous box office and critical success with such films as Desperately Seeking Susan and Making Mr. Right. However, She-Devil fails to live up to the potential of its premise, its director, and, with a notable exception, its cast.

Roseanne Barr falls short in her role as Ruth Patchett. Barr says that the film is not so much about revenge as justice: "It's about coming out of denial, feeling good about yourself." Unfortunately, her point of view conflicts with that of Susan Seidelman, who says that it is a story of revenge. Seidelman's view should have prevailed, not only because she is the director but because it is a stronger and more appropriate choice for the film. Barr's character spends too much time trying to feel good about herself and not enough time trying to make others feel miserable.

Ed Begley, Jr's performance as Bob Patchett is ho-hum, chiefly because of his lack of strong dramatic choices. His few moments of energy, usually in the form of anger, seem stark and unsupported in comparison to the rest of his performance.

Meryl Streep as Mary Fisher is the saving grace of the film. As always, Streep's characterization is multi-layered, intricately detailed, and perfectly executed. Streep is known for the drastic and usually unflattering physical alterations she is willing to undergo to realistically bring to life her character. She-Devil gives her a rare opportunity to portray a glowing example of beauty and femininity.

During an interview by Robin Leach on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," Fisher explains in her breathy, emotional voice that a woman's responsibility to her partner in a heterosexual relationship is to "let him know he's a man, so there's no confusion." By trying to live the life of the heroines of her novels, Fisher's life has become a grand caricature. However, this studied charm and deference to the male sex mask her true self. Underneath her poised exterior is the daughter of a kosher butcher from Hoboken clawing her way to the surface. Occasionally Fisher's voice cracks, her poise shatters, and out bursts an ill-tempered, shrieking creature grasping for control. These moments are a triumph of Streep's acting ability.

Meryl Streep has waited over 10 years to demonstrate her talent for comedy. In this film she consistently outshines her two co-stars, whose entertainment careers originated in comedy. Streep plays the dual nature of Fisher's personality with the precise touch necessary to push it to the peak of humor without forcing it over the edge into silliness.

Oscar award-winning actress Linda Hunt's talents are virtually wasted in her small supporting role. However, it is with her that Roseanne Barr has her clearest, most honest delivery of a line as she looks at the diminutive Hunt and says, "I've been sorry all my life, and from the looks of it, so have you."

She-Devil has some very funny moments, which are most often provided by Streep. Unfortunately, the film cannot sustain these levels when she leaves the screen.