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‘Slaves of New York’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 31, 1989

Did you ever find yourself at the kind of party where the people are beautiful, the cutting edge is visible -- and you just want to go home?

That was the anxiety I experienced reading Tama Janowitz's glib-speak bestseller Slaves of New York. Purportedly insightful commentary on Manhattan's underworld of art-gallery pretense, Janowitz's novel seemed precisely the kind of half-baked au courant undertaking that would reap instant success.

Now the book's a major motion picture and neither Janowitz (who scripted) nor director James Ivory has redeemed or enlivened it. If anything, they've exposed it. Gone is the occasionally witty first-person narrative that held the book (somewhat) together, and standing in its place is the disappointingly wispy Bernadette Peters as Eleanor, the insecure Big Apple inhabitant who majors in urban angst and minors in hat-making.

Visually, Peters exudes an appropriately pallid, lost-girl ennui, as she reacts to the party of so-so SoHo artists around her, but dramatically she's a wallflower. She seems unreal, uttering lines from Janowitz's word processor and not her own soul. She's meant to be a touchstone; she's more like a pet rock.

Ivory has shown noticeable improvement as a director; his normally sluggish visual style has loosened up. In "Slaves," he employs a flashy split-screen technique (copped from a similar method Stephen Frears used in "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid") that conveys the fractured lifestyles of the young and artless.

But it doesn't help. Certainly it was hard to adapt the book's unstructured narrative -- where you might as well open it to any page and start skimming. The movie's only real hope was to make this nonstory explode in a frenzy of garish, satirical color. But Ivory (teaming up with regular producer Ismail Merchant) used muted dramatic tones instead of freewheeling splash paint.

A few well-aimed performances gate-crash this 'luded-out gathering. Adam Coleman Howard, as Peters' petulant artist-boyfriend, is right on the mark, and Mercedes Ruehl (the wonderful Italian vixen in Jonathan Demme's "Married to the Mob") puts more spark into her ladies' room, dope-smoking cameo than all the others here, who carry on like -- well, characters in a Tama Janowitz novel.

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