If America has finally gotten off the roller coaster of the sexual revolution, it's hard to place exactly where it disembarked. But director Alan Rudolph has always had acute antennae, and "Choose Me," a movie of manners leavened with sophisticated farce, locates the confused, searching quality of contemporary sexual attitudes as well as any this year.
Sex isn't a problem for Eve (Lesley Ann Warren), a retired hooker turned bartender/owner of Eve's Lounge, a haunt of the red-light district; when one of her patrons complains, "I don't have much success with men," Eve responds glumly, "I have too much." But permanence and intimacy are another story, so she complains to the Love Line, a radio advice show hosted by Dr. Nancy Love (Genevieve Bujold). Permanence and intimacy aren't a problem for Mickey, a pathological liar who proposes marriage to every woman he kisses -- he doesn't know anything else. Released from a loony bin, he comes to Eve's Lounge looking for the former owner, and is smitten by the new one.
The plot of "Choose Me" has the arbitrary, stage-managed quality of classic farce. Dr. Love, by coincidence, becomes Eve's roommate; Pearl (the charmingly fey Rae Dawn Chong) hangs out in her bar. As Mickey gets involved with all three of them, he collides comically with Zack (Patrick Bauchau), who's previously done the same.
Rudolph is a long-time prote'ge' of director Robert Altman (he was the assistant director for "The Long Goodbye," "California Split" and "Nashville," and Altman's company produced two of Rudolph's films including "Welcome to L.A."), and many of the scenes in "Choose Me" have an Altmanesque feel -- the use of mirrors and close-up portraits, the bouncing among parallel conversations. But Rudolph has a style of his own, a sinuous, traveling camera that traces circles and triangles around his actors like an idle finger coursing a lover's belly.
Close-ups work only when the stars hold the screen, but that's no problem here. Lesley Ann Warren has a style as generous as her Rita Hayworth curves -- she gives everything to her performance, and her eyelids fan down across her extravagantly beautiful eyes like the palm fronds cooling Cleopatra on her barge. Warren was dazzling as the comic bimbo on James Garner's arm in "Victor/Victoria"; but in "Choose Me," she takes the hooker's role from the other side, showing us how this woman assumes theatrical airs, how she uses promiscuity as a shield. As the laconic hipster Mickey, Carradine has the kind of Marlboro Man grimace that looks like he's practiced it before his shaving mirror -- it's the style you'd expect from a pathological liar. And Patrick Bauchau (from Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless") brings a self-serious craziness to Zach, a distinctively Gallic style that underscores "Choose Me's" roots in classic French farce.
Which isn't to say that "Choose Me" doesn't have problems. The attempts to create a Sodom and Gomorrah milieu, with shots of people pawing each other in the background and the like, are heavy-handed -- Brian De Palma did the same thing with a few deft strokes in "Body Double." The use of movie posters as visual jokes is stilted, the lilting of a gospel chorus at each moment of sexual connection ("Feels so right/You're my choice tonight") intrusive. And the satire of sexual therapy, through the character of Dr. Love, falls flat, mostly because of Bujold -- she's starting to look like the Countess Dracula, and delivers her lines in the scattershot style of a cold reading.
Still, where "Choose Me" fails, it's simply because it aims higher than the stale conventions and pat morality of sex comedies like "The Woman in Red." At one point, Dr. Love rifles Mickey's briefcase, discovering clippings that show that all his various "lies" -- that he was a master mechanic, a CIA spy, a celebrated photographer -- are true. In this age of irony, Rudolph says, we're all pathological liars -- we create a personality that's somehow apart from ourself, an image in the mirror of Eve's Lounge. His characters are disconnected from themselves, so connection with other people becomes that much harder -- relations with other people can never approach the perfection of the relationship with your own image. In giving us a world where marriage, once natural, becomes an act of random, absurd will -- you simply propose to everyone you meet -- "Choose Me" holds up the mirror, not only to its own characters, but to the conundrums of '80s life.