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'Sammy and Rosie Get Laid' (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 23, 1987

In the opening shot of "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid," we're shown what looks like a mass of smoking rubble, perhaps a razed city block or the aftermath of an explosion, while on the sound track Margaret Thatcher is heard making promises about England's bright future. It's not a subtle beginning for this turbulent, fervent, slightly cracked film, but it's representative. This is a picture that speaks its mind, unabashedly, incessantly.

Directed by Stephen Frears from a script by Hanif Kureishi -- the team responsible for "My Beautiful Laundrette" -- "Sammy and Rosie" has a fierce, scrambled intelligence. In this story about a group of interlocking characters in a London neighborhood on the fringe, Kureishi and Frears rack up all of their views on sex, politics, colonialism, social injustice and rebellion like balls in a game of pool, then send them flying. And they seem less interested in pocketing shots than in watching the balls ricochet and collide.

It's this quality of brash gregariousness that draws us into the movie. There is no plot as such. The people in it are like people you've known -- smart, committed, wonderfully full-of-it people who park themselves on your sofa until the wee hours, bending your ear with the news of the world. They're maddeningly, irresistibly glib.

The primary characters, the eponymous Sammy and Rosie (who are engaged in the manner the title suggests, but not with each other) occupy center stage, but they don't dominate; other figures -- friends, lovers, street rabble, even hallucinatory characters -- crowd into the picture. Sammy (Ayub Khan Din), who's the emigrant son of a ranking Pakistani official in a politically repressive regime, is an accountant for actors, rock musicians and artists -- what he calls "the cream of the scum." Rosie (Frances Barber), who's English, is a social worker who writes the occasional article for a leftist journal. (Her current project is entitled "An Intelligent Woman's Guide to Kissing in History.")

These young marrieds are well-off enough to sustain a comfy, middle-class life. But the couple's relative financial security makes them strenuously unconventional in all other areas, makes them fight against settling in. And in almost every detail of their lives, their clothes, their furniture, the posters on the wall (there's a big one of Virginia Woolf) they announce themselves. And in almost every detail, they're infuriatingly hip.

Rosie and Sammy's father Rafi (Shashi Kapoor) are the film's moral antagonists, and they make the most vivid impression. Rafi, who has fled to England with a fat bankroll partly because of political pressure and partly because England still represents tranquility and civilization to him, is the epitome of pleasure-centered amorality. Kapoor's performance here is silken and droll. And in his scenes with Claire Bloom, who seems wonderfully out of it as Alice, the lover he returns to after 20 years, there's something of the drowsy pasha about him.

Rafi's a magnificently seductive monster, and it's his arrival, which occurs just as rioting erupts outside Sammy and Rosie's door, that sets the movie in motion. Rafi appears implacably self-possessed and beyond criticism. When Rosie and her friends, a pair of lesbian lovers -- one black (Suzette Llewellyn), the other Pakistani (Meera Syal) -- confront him with the facts about his past, listing his participation in the torture of prisoners and other heinous abuses, he looks more embarrassed than contrite.

Rosie's contentiousnesss isn't her most attractive quality; she's likable, but you can see that she would be hard to live with. When she bears in on Rafi at a restaurant, taunting him loudly about his crimes, her face looks pinched with anger. Her rage doesn't stop with Rafi, though; she's furious with Sammy as well. Though the foundations of their relationship, as Rosie articulates them, are "freedom plus commitment," she can't help being hurt by Sammy's affair with an American photographer (Wendy Gazelle).

You get the feeling that she isn't as well-suited as she would like to be to the free-floating life style that she and Sammy have set up for themselves. Yet she doesn't quite know what to replace it with either. Rafi's plan to buy them a house so that they can provide him with grandchildren offends her -- though Sammy's all for it -- both because it would be funded with tainted money and because it cuts against her commitment to bohemianism. So she rails and agitates against everything.

If Rosie is too intense to float, her lover (Roland Gift) -- who's sometimes referred to as Danny, sometimes as Vivian -- is too ephemeral for anything else. Danny lives in a kind of shanty town for transients and Third World street people. Neither Danny nor the camp-dwellers are presented as realistic figures; they're Kureishi's poetic conception of the class left out of Thatcher's new England. And, as such, they're reminiscent of those embarrassingly pure flower children and hipsters in the movies of the late '60s and early '70s.

Danny himself is easier to swallow than these others, largely because Gift (who's the lead singer for the band Fine Young Cannibals) has such a commanding sexual presence on screen. But he -- and the ghost of one of Rafi's former victims who roams through the film -- are expressions of how the film's thinking goes soft.

Kureishi, who's half-Pakistani, half-British, wants to set things on fire, but his picture of the politically disenfranchised has been shot through the gauze of revolutionary zeal. The writer has called the film his declaration of war on the British establishment, and so the high-spirited rioters and looters in the film are the writer's dream vision of himself as a hurler of real, instead of literary, bricks.

As a result, the film's bull quotient is dangerously high. Yet there's something intoxicatingly original about its particular brand of bull. No sooner does one of the film's characters put forth one point of view than the opposite or complementary sentiment is advanced by another. It's like Shaw -- but with funk. Even in bed, these characters can't stop yapping.

"Sammy and Rosie" is a Godardian advertisement -- part utopian, part despairing -- for a multiracial, pansexual, wide-open society. Like "My Beautiful Laundrette," which originated its own style of poetic reportage, it defies categorization. You can't pin it down. And who would want to anyway? Kureishi and Frears, who this year also directed "Prick Up Your Ears," have combined their talents to concoct a wildly ambitious, engagingly uneven movie that matches their vision of the world. You come out of it energized, ready to talk.

Copyright The Washington Post

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