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‘Untamed Heart’ (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 12, 1993

The romantic fable "Untamed Heart" is hopelessly syrupy, preposterous and more than a little bit lame, but, still, somehow it got to me. The movie is about a fragile orphan boy named Adam who grows up in Minneapolis under the insulating care of Catholic nuns with the impression -- misguided, we assume -- that his ailing ticker has been replaced with a baboon heart.

As the Johnny Mathis song on the soundtrack suggests, a strange, enchanted boy, indeed.

When the Baboon Boy grows up, he's played by Christian Slater (who until now seemed to have Jack Nicholson's engine thumping inside his chest), and, miraculously, this shy, mysterious character suits Slater extremely well. Adam, who works as a busboy and dishwasher for a local greasy spoon, speaks so infrequently and keeps so much to himself that his co-workers think he might be retarded. "I hear he has ape parts in him," says Cindy (Rosie Perez), one of the diner's waitresses. But Caroline (Marisa Tomei) isn't so sure. After dating a long series of jerks, she finds this gentle soul a refreshing change.

Of course, she has no idea that his coeur de baboon is breaking over her, or that he follows her home every night (at a discreet distance, naturally), and, sometimes, even sneaks into her bedroom at night to watch her sleep. As creepy as this sounds, the way the director handles it, it's actually kind of sweet, especially when Adam rescues Caroline late one night from a pair of attackers who try to rape her on her way home.

The relationship between these two develops very slowly, and so does the movie. In part, this is because Adam has a slight "Edward Scissorhands" problem: He's been isolated from the world so long, especially from the realm of women, that his social education has to begin at square one. But Caroline's combination of sass and working-class resilience help fill in the spaces that Adam's silences -- and Tom Sierchio's script -- leave blank.

For "Untamed Heart" to be wholly satisfying, its director, Tony Bill, had to maintain a precarious balance between fairy-tale enchantment and real-life horror, and, at best, he is only partly successful. When Caroline's attackers take their revenge, the savagery of the beating is jarring, and, on the other side of the equation, some of the storybook stuff -- like when Adam catches a puck at a North Stars hockey game -- is laid on sickeningly thick. Still, when Slater and Tomei are alone together, their exchanges are so shyly affectionate, so sweet, that they soften the hardest hearts. Primate or human.

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