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‘The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 21, 1992

Picking through the dull viscera of "The Gun in Betty Lou's Handbag," there is occasional comedy to be found. But it doesn't change the coroner's report on this Touchstone Pictures caper: Death by Mediocrity.

The potential is illustrated in momentary flashes by Penelope Ann Miller. As the titular Betty Lou, she's the only watchable element. The very ignored wife of small-town policeman Eric Thal, she is getting steamed up about her life. Thal begs off their anniversary dinner. He asks her to clean his shirts.

When she finds a gun at a river's edge, she tries to report it to her husband but he won't even take the call. When she finds out the gun is the murder weapon in a brutal motel slaying, Miller does what any frustrated, unrespected person would do. She admits to the crime.

Other than this plot twist, the movie's a handbag full of formulaic fluff. Even the most forgiving audience is likely to fidget through this. The motel victim, it turns out, was attempting to blackmail Louisiana mafia leader William Forsythe with an incriminating cassette. Concluding Miller now has the tape, Forsythe dispatches his henchmen after her.

Meanwhile, Miller has undergone a little school-of-hard-knocks assertiveness training from her temporary cellmates, including Cathy Moriarty, a whore with a heart of brass. Miller learns how to yell "Scratch and sniff!" at her jailers. She dresses to kill. To her husband's horror, she achieves the acclaim she's always yearned for.

Previously known as a shy librarian, she's an instant legend, the town's own gangster lady. Crowds clamor around her. A TV news reporter calls her a "postmodern Robin Hood." When she appears in court, vampily attired, the judge says: "That's Betty Lou Perkins? Hell, I don't go to the library enough."

But Miller still has a murder rap to beat, with novice attorney Alfre Woodard to help her. Psychotic Forsythe is determined to get that tape -- whether Miller has it or not. So he kidnaps Woodard. Husband Thal, now completely estranged from Miller, has been bumped from the force. Can Miller save her attorney pal? Will she get back together with Thal? Whose idea was this movie?

An appealing, talented performer, who plays well against her softspokenness, Miller has her moments. In this movie, she suggests Julie Andrews gone berserk. Her crowning moment takes place in a ladies room. Completely frustrated with the universal indifference toward her, she stands in front of the mirror and pulls the gun from her pocketbook. "Shut up, all of you!" she screams, pulling the trigger.

Moments after the enormous explosion, an older lady, using the bathroom, runs screaming from her cubicle. It's a rare, humorous incident and, at that moment, it seems the movie might just break free from its forgettable moorings. But then, the rest of the movie follows.

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