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‘The Underneath’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 28, 1995

Director Steven Soderbergh's "The Underneath" emulates the steamy pulp of "The Postman Always Rings Twice"—only this postman is just ringing our chimes. As tales of sex and sinfulness go, Soderbergh's fourth film doesn't deliver.

Here, Soderbergh attempts to return to the terrain he explored so deftly in his debut "sex, lies, and videotape," the interpersonal gabfest that has been his only success. While he has recaptured the cozy quirkiness of that dialogue-driven film, he hasn't connected with screenwriter Sam Lowry's revision of the 1949 film noir "Criss Cross."

"The Underneath," which offers colored filters, lowered ceilings and other stylistic conceits in place of real drama, begins minutes before an armored car heist; the series of flashbacks that ensues reveals the motivations that lead up to the crime. In all, four different time frames come together like the jigsaw puzzles that preoccupy several of the extras in the background. As if we needed the nudge.

Peter Gallagher, a yuppie slimer in "sex, lies," brings a riverboat dandy's bonhomie to the role of Michael Chambers, a bedimpled drifter who comes home to Austin, Tex., for his mother's second marriage. He decides to stay put when his new stepfather, a trusted employee of the Perennial Armored Car Co., wrangles a job as a driver for him.

Michael also tries for a reconciliation with his ex-wife Rachel (fey, freckled Alison Elliott), an unemployable actress now under the protection of the town tough, Tommy (William Fichtner). Rachel encourages Michael's pursuit. It seems she's almost forgiven him for abandoning her with more than $30,000 in gambling debts. A jealous Tommy soon discovers her reinfatuation, and Michael must now devise a scheme to free Rachel from Tommy's strong arms.

"The Underneath" is not about the crime, but the tangle of relationships that lead up to the robbery and its nasty aftermath. The fluctuating flashbacks and pretentious cinematography do nothing to alter the predictability of the plot, enliven the leaden pace or revitalize the tired generic characters. The yarn seems especially wan compared with the originality of neo-noirist John Dahl's "The Last Seduction" and Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction."

The Underneath is rated R for language, violence and sexuality.

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