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Goodbye, Lover

Comedy with delusions

By Roy Rodenstein

Directed by Roland Joffe

Written by Ron Peer, Joel Cohen, Alec Sokolow

With Patricia Arquette, Dermot Mulroney, Ellen DeGeneres, Mary-Louise Parker, Don Johnson

What do you get when you cross a spoof with the genre it’s spoofing? Probably something like Goodbye, Lover. Director Roland Joffe, who started his career with the acclaimed The Killing Fields and has proceeded with mixed critical success (he directed the The Scarlet Letter, for example), continues to experiment here with a mixture of film noir and Fatal Instinct-style genre-busting.

Patricia Arquette is Sandra Dunmore, who may or may not be the person to whom the film’s tagline “No one’s ever been so good at being so bad’’ refers. Sandra works in real-estate, and is sleeping with Ben Dunmore (Don Johnson) -- her husband’s brother -- in all the houses she has access to. She has no qualms about taking advantage of each house’s resources, whether clothing or furniture, to set up a kinky extravaganza for Ben. Unfortunately, this amusing comedic set-up is only used once.

Soon, Ben starts worrying about what if his brother Jake (Dermot Mulroney) were to discover their affair, and Sandra notes “Lots of things can happen. Maybe you should make them happen.’’ At this junction the movie employs its spoof mode, as Ben finds the idea of killing his brother preposterous. The movie soon switches into scheming and double-crossing, with some triple- and probably quadruple-crossing thrown in. Yes, the term “double indemnity’’ is heard, but only once.

In the first hour the film is in some ways reminiscent of the recent Cruel Intentions, with lots of threats, sex, and an anything-goes policy on innuendo. For all the thrashing, though, there is little momentum. Some scenes are painfully ridiculous, as one where Sandra meets Ben at a church, slips a diskette into a computer under the organ, and orgiastically makes love to Ben to the tune of Bach, the two hiding behind the organ as a choir below marvels at Ben’s playing. It’s not that such scenes cannot be funny -- Hot Shots is one of several counterexamples -- but here they just feel too scripted.

Enter Ellen. As cynical Sgt. Rita Pompano, DeGeneres is just the breath of fresh air the movie needs. Though a few of her lines bomb, she hits regularly enough to keep things at a nice chuckle level. There are a few brilliant bits between her and the goofy officer she works with and torments. She seems to be playing the role usually earmarked for Whoopi Goldberg, and does so with aplomb. Another wonderful touch is the recurrent use of songs from The Sound of Music, which giddily accompany Sandra whether she is plotting murders or asleep. “I don’t trust anyone over 10 who listens to The Sound of Music,’’ Sgt. Pompano remarks with amusing insight.

As long as the plot commits to farce, the movie marches along merrily. After a murder, characters protest “We’re entitled to that money!! We did all the work!’’ and resort to serial murder as a cover-up for a single murder. Execution is muddled, unfortunately. A victim of the serial murder scheme seems to look like the intended target, but apparently the dead person is someone else. This is not a purposeful trick, though, it’s just sloppy editing.

On the plus side, Vincent Gallo livens things up a bit as a hired killer. But is his playing pinball supposed to be charming, amusing, or frightening? The same questions go for his beating of an unidentified prisoner. Walking the line between thriller and farce is tough, and this movie is all over the map. Sometimes it amuses, occasionally it thrills, and the rest of the time it doesn’t know what it’s doing. There is even a bit of violent gunplay thrown in, perhaps meant to be cathartic, but it is neither funny nor scary nor much of anything other than random. It would work great in an episode of South Park, but it’s very out of place in this movie.

Overall, Goodbye, Lover is an interesting experiment in mixing genres. Some parts it has down cold, such as crisp interior shots from cinematographer Dante Spinotti (L.A. Confidential). Others, like acting, fall along the same fault lines as the film’s tone. Along with Mary-Louise Parker as a droll, manipulative secretary, DeGeneres, Arquette and Johnson are charmingly jocund, while Mulroney and others tasked with the thriller-heavy roles are just dull. In the end I wasn’t sure who was supposed to be “so good at being so bad’’ or how much sense the plot made. The irony of Sandra carrying the collection plate around for a priest, though, was worth holding onto.