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By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 10, 1995


Atom Egoyan
Mia Kirshner;
Bruce Greenwood;
Arsinee Khanjian;
Elias Koteas;
Don McKellar
nudity, sexual situations, minor violence and graphic sexual talk

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IF ATMOSPHERE were all it took to make a movie, "Exotica" might be something to recommend. An extended mood piece full of dark, edgy implications, Atom Egoyan's movie -- which won the International Critics' Prize at Cannes -- starts off promisingly, but eventually sinks into its own convoluted oblivion. There is something about the Canadian director's creativity that begs for an electric cattle prod -- he needs an unforgettable jolt to sharpen his somber, art-house indulgences into alert coherence.

Set in an unnamed Canadian city that appears to be Toronto, "Exotica" sets itself up in a casually compelling way, as we meet Don McKellar, a secretive pet store owner who smuggles illegal animal eggs (and other natural exotica) into the country, and emotionally haunted tax inspector Bruce Greenwood, who frequents Exotica, a strip club for the upwardly mobile.

At this club, Greenwood regularly requests a personal table dance from young stripper Mia Kirshner. With an almost psychotically paternal benevolence, Greenwood keeps telling Kirshner he wants to protect her. And from his high-up DJ stand, club announcer Elias Koteas watches this odd relationship with increasing jealousy.

Egoyan, who also made "Family Viewing," "Speaking Parts" and "The Adjuster," creates several connections among these characters. Kirshner knows Greenwood from happier, more innocent days; Green- wood's job leads him to audit McKellar; DJ Koteas also knows Greenwood from the past; and so on. But these narrative intersections are part of a coldly conceived design rather than anything of engaging value.

At its best, "Exotica" has an entrancing, distanced lyricism. Within the club, for instance, Egoyan evokes a memorable sense of elegant, spiritual corruption among the statues, foliage, undulating women and panting yuppies. (Actually, much of that success can be attributed to Leonard Cohen, whose superb dark anthem, "Everybody Knows," plays ominously on the soundtrack.) But at its worst, which ends up being most of the time, the movie traps us in art-house pretentiousness, as we're obliged to follow the yearnings and abstract corruptions of the urban zestless. After plodding, stylized emptiness like this, you're more then primed to run screaming into the night, desperately looking for the next showing of "Speed."

EXOTICA (R) -- Contains nudity, sexual situations, minor violence and graphic sexual talk.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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