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Foster and Jewison comedies bode well for fall film season

LITTLE MAN TATE

Written by Scott Frank.

Directed by Jodie Foster.

Starring Jodie Foster, Dianne Wiest

and Adam Hann-Byrd.

OTHER PEOPLE'S MONEY

Written by Alvin Sargent.

Based on a play by Jerry Sterner.

Directed by Norman Jewison.

Starring Gregory Peck, Danny DeVito

and Penelope Ann Miller.

Now playing at the Loews Paris.

By CHRIS ROBERGE

IF THE SUMMER MOVIE SEASON IS dominated by multi-million dollar special effects extravaganzas, and winter is reserved for the sweeping epics salivating over the possibilities of Oscar attention, then all too often spring and fall are slow periods for moviegoers, with not much to offer. Fortunately, though, many studios are beginning to release some classier projects ahead of the two big rushes in the hope of attracting larger audiences than they might otherwise receive. Two movies opening today, Jodie Foster's Little Man Tate and Norman Jewison's Other People's Money, certainly deserve to grab some extra attention. Both are comedies possessing what too many don't even strive for -- intelligence, subtlety and strong performances.

Little Man Tate is the story of an extraordinarily gifted seven-year-old boy who attempts to come to terms with his conflicting ideas and emotions as well as his profound sense of loneliness. Fred Tate, convincingly played by newcomer Adam Hann-Byrd, is a boy who at age one could read, and at seven is an accomplished pianist, artist and mathematician. What he is not is a good elementary school student. He confuses his teacher with complex answers to her simple questions, and at recess he creates chalk drawings on the asphalt while his schoolmates play catch. Fred is a genius who wants someone to eat lunch with, an adult mind trapped in a child's body, complete with an ulcer.

At home, a messy apartment that seems to be less rundown than cluttered with Fred's belongings, Fred and his single mother Dede, a waitress at a local Chinese restaurant, take care of each other. Jodie Foster does an wonderful job as Dede. The character could have easily appeared as an ignorant and doting parent, but Foster makes her a loving friend for Fred, capable of both pride and pity for him. Eventually, Fred's talents are noticed by the Grierson Institute, an organization headed by Jane Grierson (Dianne Wiest) that helps gifted children develop their skills. Wiest gives an excellent performance with a great combination of comic and touching mannerisms in her portrayal of a former child prodigy. Jane persuades Dede to allow Fred to accompany her and other young geniuses to a type of mental olympics, and even to enroll in a class at a local college. In the course of his new experiences, Fred meets a wide variety of people including Damon Wells, a hilariously obnoxious math wiz known as "The Mathemagician," played by P. J. Ochlan, and Eddie, a carefree college student, played by Harry Connick, Jr.

In the wrong hands, this material could have easily resulted in a tired and trite story about how Fred realizes his mental potential through his relationship with Jane, and his potential for caring through Dede, while each of the guardians acknowledges the mistakes of their one-sided approaches. To a certain degree, the movie does follow this formula, particularly in its neatly resolved ending. But in the process leading up to that point, the movie raises many more questions than it is willing to provide answers for. Jodie Foster's debut direction is wonderfully delicate and unforced, as she allows each character to be more than just a stock role. The film seems to have affection for every member of its story and a fascination with the way that each can be enriched by the others. For all of its humor and entertainment, Little Man Tate is ultimately a beautiful observation on life and how the mind and the heart can both enjoy it.

Other People's Money, while not as rich a movie as Little Man Tate, is just as enjoyable. The plot centers around the attempts of Larry "The Liquidator" Garfield (Danny DeVito) to buy out New England Wire and Cable, a Rhode Island company that has expanded over the course of the past century to include several industries. (Ironically, their least successful venture is the original wire and cable-producing one). New England Wire and Cable is run by Mr. Jorgensen (Gregory Peck), a kind manager more interested in the workings of traditions than those of Wall Street. When Garfield's intentions of a corporate takeover become apparent, Jorgensen and his wife call in Kate Swanson (Penelope Ann Miller), a New York lawyer close to the family, to help protect the company from being dismantled.

DeVito gives an outstanding performance as Garfield. He somehow manages to play a man who wakes up each morning to his computer displays of stock market trends, who has more passion for doughnuts than people and whose obsession for money blinds him of almost anything else, in such a way that he is both vulgar and sympathetic. He is a man who does hateful things, but never totally receives hatred from the audience.

Gregory Peck, as Jorgensen, brings a convincing sense of respect to the role as he comforts his workers while refusing to take Kate's advice of paying Garfield off to make him go away. Unfortunately, as Kate, the astonishingly attractive Penelope Ann Miller is required merely to be astonishingly attractive. Kate is a woman who is aware of her beauty and uses it as a weapon against Garfield to bring down his guard. Miller is certainly capable of playing a seductress, and she has great talents as a comic actress, but at times she seems to be straining in the limited role.

As in Little Man Tate, the best quality of Other People's Money is its refusal to take a cartoonish, connect-the-dots approach to the story. Norman Jewison allows each of the characters to be fully developed, with both benefits and flaws. Even in Garfield, the movie doesn't find a clear-cut villain. Instead, Jewison seems confident to merely show two wildly opposed points of view and allow the viewer to form his or her own opinion. Like Little Man Tate, the movie manages to be simultaneously funny and thought-provoking without skipping a beat. A very funny scene in which Garfield and Kate attempt to seduce each other with promises of money, power and sex can be followed by one in which Garfield and Jorgensen deliver intelligent and impassioned speeches about the different positions that they take on the rewards of capitalism.

Little Man Tate and Other People's Money both warrant praise for the risks they take in assuming that audiences will want to see a movie that they can laugh along with while having their ideas questioned. Hopefully, these two best comedies in recent months will reach the audiences that they deserve.