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'The Pick-Up Artist' (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 18, 1987

In "The Pick-Up Artist," when Jack Jericho (Robert Downey) opens his mouth the darnedest things pop out. And Jack is always opening his mouth. Walking down the street, he approaches every sexy woman he meets. And he's in Manhattan -- girl watcher's heaven -- so there are sexy women everywhere, of all descriptions, shapes and sizes.

Picking up women is Jack's art form -- and he works at it. When we first see him he's rehearsing his lines in the bathroom mirror, perfecting his moves. And for every woman and every situation, he has a smooth line of patter. "Did anyone ever tell you that you have the face of a Botticelli and the body of a Degas?" he says to one leggy blond. "What's your name? Eileen? Brilliant name."

Jack's relentlessness about women might be a creepy turnoff -- he might simply seem like a letch -- if his mood weren't so good-natured and ebullient. Vrooming around town in his Camaro convertible, he's on a perpetual high; he's giddy with anticipation, excited, raring to go.

In these early scenes, we're just as expectant and pumped with enthusiasm as he is. The movie is unfailingly gregarious, and it's something of an oddity too -- a comedy of manners about sexual obsessiveness. James Toback, who wrote and directed the film, backs the action with songs by the Crystals and the Ronettes and other girl groups, and this, together with Gordon Willis' ravishing cityscapes, creates a sunny, voluptuous atmosphere.

This connoisseur's view of the New York is central to the film's charm. (Toback grew up there and you feel he's taking you to his favorite places.) Toback wants us to see the city as Jack's candy store, and that's how we see it. And seeing it this way -- as a romantic landscape -- puts Jack's womanizing into context.

Admittedly, Toback's view of Jack's exploits is a rosy view; pick-up artistry isn't always this benign. But there's great skill in the way Toback keeps the current of compulsiveness present under the action without allowing it to overwhelm the material.

Also, Toback gets away with this approach because we allow him to, and because we accept Jack as a something of a conceit. Downey makes a tremendous contribution here too. With another, sexier performer, Toback's delicate balance might be disrupted. Downey, who worked for one season on "Saturday Night Live," has just the right emotional weight for the role of Jack, and the right touch of goofy boyishness to soften his aggressiveness.

He looks a little wacky, too, which helps. Part of why Jack comes on to every woman on the street is that he loves the action; he's a sensation freak. But he also loves the control; the fact that it's his choice. One woman, though, takes that away from him.

I've liked Molly Ringwald in the movies she's done prior to this -- particularly in "Sixteen Candles." Playing girls, she's had a beguiling sweetness and openness to the camera. But here she's playing a young woman and she has a ripeness and authority that she's never shown before.

Randy is not like any of the other women Jack has run into; she gives as good as she gets, turning his slick patter back around on him. After they meet -- he uses the Botticelli line -- Jack drives her into the park, where they make love in his car, and afterward she informs him that it was fun but she has no intention of seeing him again. She's got business to take care of and simply walks away.

Naturally, Jack is thunderstruck. And not simply because she refused to become another phone number on the tattered yellow page he keeps in his back pocket. This girl's got real substance and it throws him. He has to break through to her.

There are problems though. Her father (Dennis Hopper) is a gambler in debt for more than $25,000 to a thug played by Harvey Keitel, and since they can't come up with the money, arrangements have been made to clear up the debt in another way -- namely by having Randy spend the night with a wealthy South American.

Most of second half of the film centers on Jack's efforts to bail Randy out, and it's not as engaging as the first. The movie at this point seems to lose its step; the plot forces Randy to fight against Jack's help, and her pridefulness doesn't make much sense. Neither does the arrival of Danny Aiello as Jack's friend Phil, who helps him track Randy to Atlantic City where she's trying to play her paychecks from conducting tours at the Museum of Natural History into a bankroll big enough to get her off the hook.

The movie's ending is overly sentimental -- something I never thought I'd see in a Toback movie. What it delivers is a message about commitment -- and it's pretty much of a crock. You don't feel that Toback's heart is in it either, especially as an explanation for Jack's behavior. It's too pat a resolution. The whole Atlantic City section, in fact, is rather clumsy and unsatisfying (especially the final showdown with Keitel). But the movie is such a charmer that these are only minor distractions. The most remarkable thing about the movie is that Toback, who directed explosive, excessive, driven films like "Fingers" and "Exposed," was able to take the same obsessions that erupted into violence in his other movies and translate them into comedy -- that he's turned his demons into entertainment.

"The Pick-Up Artist" contains some suggestive material.

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