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‘Man Trouble’ (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 18, 1992

Negligibility is the last thing one would expect from a Jack Nicholson film -- especially a Jack Nicholson film costarring Ellen Barkin, directed by Bob Rafelson with a script by Carol Eastman, the writer-director team who made "Five Easy Pieces." When you add some of the most gifted character actors in the movies, including Beverly D'Angelo, Harry Dean Stanton, David Clennon, Paul Mazursky, Saul Rubinek and Michael McKean, then you have every right to expect something.

And something is what you get in "Man Trouble," though just precisely what kind of something I couldn't tell you.

One thing's for certain: The movie is certainly original. No other film has ever flirted with so many formulas and genres and failed so completely to (a) parody their conventions or (b) execute them with some degree of skill or design. The movie is not simply bad. It's mysteriously bad. By that I mean that it's possible to watch this movie in its entirety and never once have the slightest clue as to what the filmmakers had in mind.

The intricate, farcical plot puts a lot of balls in the air, but most of them are dropped. Some even roll off into the corner and are lost. Nicholson plays a small-time security expert named Harry Bliss (or at least that's one of his names); Barkin is an accommodating, smart but somewhat wispy singer who becomes frightened after her apartment is vandalized. She hires Harry to supply her with an attack dog (a priapic German shepherd), and the two become involved.

The problem is that there isn't the slightest ounce of sexual weight in either Nicholson's or Barkin's performance, nor any sign of chemistry between them; they always seem to be meeting for the first time. Not that they don't have their moments; it's inconceivable that artists as gifted as these wouldn't. But Rafelson can't sustain the same tone for two scenes in a row. He's all over the map, and the actors look as if they were trying to give their performances on the deck of a fast-sinking ship.

In a somewhat rare move, Twentieth Century Fox refused to screen the film in advance for review, ostensibly so that the studio could capitalize on the box office draw of its stars for at least one night. And they were right on at least one score -- this thing needs all the help it can get.

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