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'Fresh Horses' : (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 19, 1988

In "Fresh Horses" Andrew McCarthy bundles his topcoat around him like a nimbus of fashionable melancholy. McCarthy is an '80s version of the soulful, neurotic figure Montgomery Clift cut in the '50s. He's all sputtering nerves and tangled emotions, a willow bent by howling agonies. He's Linus in "Peanuts" all grown up, his security blanket whipping around his neck like a scarf.

He's also a colossal pain in the neck.

He plays Matt Larkin, a 22-year-old engineering student on track to marry his preppy-perfect college sweetheart, settle down and start a family. Then he meets Jewel (Molly Ringwald), a sumptuous parcel of low-rent jailbait, and all bets are off. One clinch later, he breaks his engagement and begins taking the steps necessary to rid Jewel of her husband, whom she married to get away from her sexually abusive stepfather.

"Fresh Horses," which was directed by David Anspaugh from Larry Ketron's adaptation of his own play, is about a man whose life plans are disrupted by a sexual obsession. And using McCarthy in the role is a curious piece of casting because he seems to lack the one essential for the role -- a sexual presence. (It might help, too, if he had more than two facial expressions.)

Added to this, because Anspaugh can't delineate the class conflicts underneath the love story, and because Matt doesn't seem to have much to lose through his preoccupation with Jewel, there doesn't seem to be much at stake here.

Jewel is the more sympathetic of the two characters, but strangely enough the filmmakers seem inured to her lot in life and almost indifferent to her suffering. Ringwald's scarlet locks are the flame to which McCarthy is drawn, and the actress has some lovely, sultry moments. But even with her delicately calibrated southern twang, she seems to be playing a type -- a deadly man-trap -- more than a real character.

The production is stylishly muted, as if it all took place moments after a rainfall. Anspaugh's approach is to stage his scenes as if someone were sleeping in the next room, but the moodiness doesn't really attach itself to anything except McCarthy's generalized angst. In fact, everything in "Fresh Horses" feels generalized -- except for Ringwald's wasp-bitten pout. Her spectral sensuality outclasses the material.

Fresh Horses is rated R and contains some scenes of sexuality

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