Women under the influence

Robin Wright Penn and Alicia Silverstone are looking for a few good men

The absurdity of what they are being asked to do comes to us unimpeded by the usual John Cassavetes accessories--the "raw" cinematography and joy-riding camera work. And so the actors, in their isolation, seem doubly absurd. Robin Wright Penn is doing the Rowlands blowsy-angel bit, but she's so mannered she might be competing for Jennifer Jason Leigh's crown. Penn, perhaps to match her, piles up the mannerisms too. Travolta, who seems to be appearing in every third movie these days--is he afraid Hollywood will forget him again?--also is uncharacteristically actor-ish; perhaps he didn't want to be left out. He does things like say tink for think--just so we know Joey's an up-from-the-streets kind of guy.

Of the cast, only Harry Dean Stanton, playing Eddie's best friend, comes across as a recognizable human being. Stanton is amazing; I don't think I've ever seen him give a bad performance. Oblivious to the human zoo in She's So Lovely, he quietly goes his own way. His down-home resonance is more than a breath of fresh air--it's the only gulp of oxygen in the entire movie.

Excess Baggage, Alicia Silverstone's first feature from her First Kiss Productions, turns out to be a rather shaggy and uninvolving jaunt. As Emily T. Hope, the moneyed teenager looking for love from her emotionally distant single dad (Jack Thompson), Silverstone pouts a lot while trying to wring our sympathy. Even though she plays a character who engineers her own kidnapping and gets caught up in a cops-and-crooks spree, Silverstone doesn't seem to be in on the action. She's still playing the spoiled rich kid from Clueless, except in that film her princessy aloofness and connivance had more of a point. It was a setup for her comeuppance.

But in Excess Baggage, as in Batman & Robin, Silverstone, young as she is, already has the glazed, imperious look of a star who rations her favors. She's not taking any chances here, and it's a bit early in the game for that. Silverstone has talent, but she needs to be in movies that play around with her golden-girl pedigree--she needs filmmakers who can bring out the humor, and also the unpleasantness, in her Rodeo Drive shininess. As the producer of Excess Baggage, she protects herself--and blands herself out in the process.

What keeps the film from being the kind of thing that turns up on the USA Network is the presence of those wayward scene stealers Christopher Walken and Benicio Del Toro. Walken is Emily's "uncle" Ray--an ex-CIA assassin recruited by her father to rescue her. By usual Walken standards, Ray is a good guy, but Walken still plays him like a bad guy. His cadenced monotone and village-of-the-damned glowers are still mighty creepy. The performance is a must for the burgeoning number of Walken impressionists in our midst.

Del Toro, best known for The Usual Suspects, is playing the car thief who inadvertently gets hooked into Emily's kidnapping-for-ransom scheme. It takes awhile to get used to Del Toro's low-slung drawl; he makes Tom Waits sound like David Niven. But after a while you look forward to that drawl--it's practically the only thing you want to listen to in the movie. It's like verbal blues--a sleepy-time patter that comes out of a richer and freakier movie than the one we're watching.

She's So Lovely.
Sean Penn, Robin Wright Penn, John Travolta, Harry Dean Stanton, Debi Mazar. Written by John Cassavetes. Directed by Nick Cassavetes. Opens Friday.

Excess Baggage.
Alicia Silverstone, Jack Thompson, Christopher Walken, Benicio Del Toro, Harry Connick, Jr. Written by Max D. Adams, Dick Clement, and Ian La Fresnais. Directed by Marco Brambilla. Opens Friday.

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