Seaside bliss

In the charming romantic comedy Miami Rhapsody, just about everything goes right

First-time feature filmmaker David Frankel's Miami Rhapsody is so fleet-footed, cheerful, and entertaining it's tempting to dismiss it as just another piece of popcorn entertainment. But there's clearly a certain craft--even art--to creating a motion picture that makes you feel this swoony, giddy, and grateful, and in that light, Frankel's movie is remarkable. It brightens up the increasingly dull world of Hollywood comedy like an unexpected ray of sunshine.

The film's heroine and voice-over narrator is Gwyn (Sarah Jessica Parker), a young advertising writer from a well-off Jewish family in Miami. It's pretty much a given in this sort of movie that everybody in Gwyn's zip code is having romantic trouble. Her mother, Nina (Mia Farrow), is embroiled in an affair with Antonio (Antonio Banderas), the handsome Cuban-born nurse at her grandmother's nursing home. Gwyn's father, Vic (amusingly played by veteran comedy director Paul Mazursky), is also straying from his vows with a travel agent, Zelda (Kelly Bishop).

Gwyn's brother, Jordan (Kevin Pollak), a Type-A yuppie, is cheating on his wife with a gorgeous model (Naomi Campbell), who's supposed to be in love with one of his closest friends. Gwyn's sister, Leslie (Barbara Garrick), just married a pro football player, and though the sex is great (he tells her on their wedding night, "I love to hear women scream--it makes me feel like Michael Bolton"), the guy's a world-class skinflint who greets her surprise purchase of a sexy piece of lingerie by making her promise not to make any major buys without consulting him first. Before long, she's flirting with an old high-school chum (Jeremy Piven).

Compared to the people around her, Gwyn feels relatively sane and happy. She's engaged to Matt (Gil Bellows), a handsome, sensitive animal biologist who works at the Miami zoo, and she's been getting professional nibbles from an unctuous sitcom producer based in another city.

But in no time, her life is as topsy-turvy as everybody else's. Antonio is coming on to her, and because her fiancé has been so wrapped up in his work lately (and, at the same time, pressuring her not just to set a wedding date but specify how many kids she'd like to have and when), she finds herself feeling attracted to him. She has conflicted feelings about marriage as an institution. She admits to pals that she's always viewed it through a storybook prism, but her wishful thinking has been challenged by the carnal shenanigans going on.

As Gwyn narrates her way through her own love life and those of her parents and friends, the film hopscotches into amusing, often tortuously involved subplots for several minutes at a stretch. Sometimes the people in Gwyn's narration take over and tell their own stories for a while, and the film slips into their viewpoints, giving us an anecdote within an anecdote. (Sometimes the script gives you an anecdote within an anecdote within an anecdote--the cinematic narrative equivalent of a trapeze artist doing a triple backwards somersault blindfolded while knitting booties and singing the national anthem. Every time, Frankel eases you effortlessly back into Gwyn's viewpoint, demonstrating a storytelling dexterity it takes most filmmakers decades to develop.) There's more dialogue in Miami Rhapsody than in any three standard movie comedies, and it's almost all sharp; lines that could serve as the high points of other films are tossed out by the handful, like birdseed.

Many are spoken by Gwyn herself, and one of the surprises of Sarah Jessica Parker's performance (considering how many times she's played ditzy, gorgeous, oddly boring blanks) is the way she makes the character's nonstop stream of snappy patter seem appealing and utterly organic. You can always sense Gwyn's restless, creative mind working, sizing things up and riffing off them.

When her fiance says he read a script she sent to that TV producer and thought it was very funny, she smiles sweetly, kisses his cheek, and tells him, "Thank you. Your approval means a lot. Of course, in the real world, it means nothing, but it means a lot to me." When her sister complains that she's always disappointed she doesn't have a body like a catalog model, Gwyn deadpans, "Yeah, none of us do, but that's okay. If you did, that means you'd also have an eating disorder and breasts that explode at high altitudes." She can't stop being funny even when she's the only person around. When her brother flees in disgust from some burning barbecue he's prepared, Gwyn, standing alone beside the grill, watches the smoke rise and mutters, "Geez, it looks like the pope just died."

Parker's costars also shine. As Leslie, Carla Gugino, a buxom, dark-haired, moon-faced sexpot with a sweetly rounded nose and mischievous eyes that always seem to be flashing "PICK ME UP" in Morse code, creates a marvelous new sexual stereotype--the good-time party doll as innocent cherub. Kevin Pollak, usually typecast in cuddly, downtrodden schmuck parts, has always seemed stilted and dull to me before, but this time he gets to play a tight-assed little jerk, and the freedom from having to be likable liberates him; eyes flashing with aggression as he swaggers around Miami like a Jewish Jimmy Cagney, he makes even simple acts like dialing a cellular phone seem hilariously macho. As Gwyn's bemused, gorgeous, and flaky mother, Mia Farrow gives her richest comic performance in ages. (Woody Allen rarely allowed her to tease and flirt, which might explain why she throws herself into the part with such randy delight.)

And Antonio Banderas hasn't looked this relaxed onscreen since he was working with Pedro Almodovar back in Spain. Up to now, American movies have used him decoratively, encouraging him to pose, smile, and smolder rather than act. Miami Rhapsody certainly plays up his overpowering sex appeal--at the screening I saw, when he finally put his hands on Parker's hips, the subsequent dialogue was obscured by the sound of grown women, and more than a few men, gasping. But the film also gives him an endearing, offbeat, fully-rounded character to play, and his kooky, ethereal side emerges. He's an original screen presence who combines the dashing charm of Cary Grant, the limber-bodied wildness of the young Steve Martin, and a dash of adolescent bad-boy loneliness. During introspective moments, his facial expressions are so bizarre yet genuine that watching him, you just know his character is thinking hard about things no other movie character has ever considered.

It goes without saying that Miami Rhapsody is as artificial and contrived as any screen comedy with pretensions toward sophistication. On some level, you can't help reminding yourself that nobody in the real world talks this wittily or lives this comfortably. But because the film respects the complexities of human relationships, it never comes off as too cutesy. Everything about it looks and feels just right, from the way the subplots resolve themselves in dramatically appropriate ways--some predictable, others surprising, all satisfying--to the way cinematographer Jack Wallner gives every frame a shimmering, lively sheen, serving up a dreamy tropical wonderland of emerald palm leaves, candy-apple sunsets, and oceans with the thick texture and undiluted hue of blue acrylic paint squeezed straight from the tube. Straight-ahead escapist entertainment doesn't get much better than this.

Miami Rhapsody. Hollywood Pictures. Sarah Jessica Parker, Gil Bellows, Antonio Banderas, Mia Farrow, Paul Mazursky. Written and directed by David Frankel. Now showing. Rated PG-13; 110 minutes.

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