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‘The Rachel Papers’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 12, 1989

When it comes to women, Charles Highway understands the importance of artifice. When someone suggests that he just be himself, his mind boggles. "I don't have time to be myself with girls," he says. But "The Rachel Papers," Damian Harris' divinely cheeky first feature, is about just that: It's the story of a young lad's realization that love means never having to say you're somebody else.

Realizing that too much is at stake to depend on luck, Charles designs his seductions with the immaculate precision of a laser surgeon. Meticulous computer files are kept on each subject, listing vital stats -- eye color, family history, initial sightings. When the time comes for that first phone call, a tight shooting script is prepared (to avoid those awkward dead spots), booze is poured to steady the nerves and comforting music put on the stereo. In anticipation of his date's arrival, his room is custom-decorated for the occasion, with the appropriate paraphernalia strewn with devil-may-care exactness around the room -- unfinished poems for the tonier prospects, comic books and music mags for the more pop-minded girls. Napoleon should have been so well prepared.

"The Rachel Papers" is a coming-of-age tale whose major piece of advice is to cut the bull. But being British and, therefore, disinclined to such obvious platitudes, the movie buries its theme beneath a tide of natty patter, most of it issuing from the mouth of its hero. By all measures Charles, a winning stack of bones just on the cusp of 20, is a brilliant kid, and as played by Dexter Fletcher, an irresistible -- if not conventionally handsome -- Don Juan. Whey-faced, with fleshy lips, large eyes and a mass of springy English hair, Fletcher has the knowing expression of a fledgling satyr. (Actually, he bears an uncanny resemblance to Mick Jagger in his "Between the Buttons" period.)

The movie (which Harris adapted from the Martin Amis novel) is in part a monologue, with the protagonist directly addressing the camera, sharing his theories and strategies with the audience. By this approach, Fletcher and Harris draw us into an atmosphere of puckish intimacy, and immediately we become accomplices in his plots -- happy accomplices. Almost spookily self-possessed for his age (shoot, for any age), Charles seems to have not the slightest doubt about the course his life is to take -- that is, until he meets Rachel. He first lays eyes on her in a club, where she is anything but responsive. But he is experienced enough to know that persistence pays off. Tired of teeny-bopper sex, he sees mystery in Rachel's brunet tresses, and the promise of something more. "That's all -- something more."

A rich American his own age whose mother lives in London, Rachel (played by Ione Skye) stretches Charles' artistry to its limits. This isn't as fully conceived a character as the one Skye had recently in "Say Anything," but there's an openness and physical abandon about her acting -- particularly late in the film. But essentially, the part is underwritten. Rachel is a fantasy projection -- Charles' ideal -- and we're never quite sure what's going through her head. Her aloofness, though, is part of her character, part of what makes her so maddeningly desirable to Charles. Just to be near her, he enrolls at the posh academy where she works, invites her to tea, then later for a drink, and on both occasions is humiliated by the results. In desperation he produces a quick videotape entitled "Why Charles? Why Not!" as a final appeal.

Rachel finally thaws, and who wouldn't thaw under such an onslaught? Still, there are complications, namely her boyfriend DeForest (James Spader), who oozes in just as Charles has slipped on a Herb Alpert record, breaking the romantic momentum. The movie's final flight path is disappointingly familiar: There are obstacles, then all of a sudden they've disappeared. Plus, after Harris has carried us to his resolution, we feel let down by the cool, bland insignificance of it. Certainly, you think, there was more at stake than this?

Still, this is a film that rides on its spiffy cleverness, its swift wit and smart talk. There's an unexpected, not-tightly-screwed-on sense of comedy on display here that's bright and original even when the story falters. The picture's supporting players are impeccably cast. As DeForest, James Spader is the perfect spoiled baby of American privilege. He seems genetically predisposed to condescending smugness. Jonathan Pryce gives one of the year's most refreshingly uninhibited performances as the boy's weird, postmodern hippie brother-in-law Norman. And Fletcher is a genuine star. His devilish precocity makes "The Rachel Papers" a bracing treat.

"The Rachel Papers" is rated R and contains nudity, strong language and adult situations.

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