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'Apartment Zero' (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 04, 1989

It's readily apparent that protagonist Adrian LeDuc has ridden more than a mile in Mrs. Bates's wheelchair and that the macabre "Apartment Zero" shares its Oedipal motivations with "Psycho." Set in jittery, post-junta Buenos Aires, this surreal whodunit also serves as a political sounding board for Argentine producer-director Martin Donovan. Curiously, he voices his statement in English, using an imported Anglo cast.

Spooky, camp and downright black, this uneven mystery written by Donovan and David Koepp is indebted not only to Hitchcock but to Joseph Losey's "The Servant" and to Neil Simon. They've given us The Oddest Couple in a garish, homoerotic comic thriller for the cult crowd.

Colin Firth and Hart Bochner pair off as the persnickety Adrian and the extroverted American Jack Carney, who has just moved in with the hero, a recluse obliged to take in a boarder when overwhelmed by debt. His repertory theater business is dwindling away along with his senile mother's health. The kinky kinship between ailing mother and momma's boy is easily transferred to Jack. He practically slobbers over the hunky poseur.

Everyone is drawn to Jack, who has, as Adrian puts it, "that certain James Dean je ne sais quoi," though Richard Gere would be more like it. Jack, a gallant chameleon, befriends the neighbors -- a boisterous chorus of busybodies -- by giving each what he or she most needs. He retrieves an imperiled cat for the dotty sherry tipplers (Dora Bryan and Liz Smith), comes to the rescue of an ill-treated transvestite (James Telfer), fulfills an adolescent homosexual fantasy for another tenant, and plays father-lover to a neglected wife. Adrian, feeling jealous and exposed, warns: "Avoid the neighbors."

What with all this going on during a killing spree, we reckon that one of the roomies is the perpetrator. Adrian ignores the gruesome headlines, the radio bulletins, the world in general, to focus on old movies. Hollywood glamour photos are placed around his apartment as though they were portraits of relatives. He wears rose-colored glasses and his neighbors wear blinders -- an obvious reference to those oblivious to the turmoil of the junta. Like "The Official Story," but not so sublimely, "Apartment Zero" warns the Argentine people against selective vision. It adds that killing is not only chronic, but contagious.

The movie, only a second feature for Donovan, is unsettled, but sure of itself. The suspense is sophomoric, but sustained via Firth's performance. He's consistently prissy, potentially unbalanced in this Englishman's take on Tony Perkins. Bochner tends to over-smolder. For that matter, the best moments belong to Smith and Bryan, as terribly terribly British aunties.

A tale with a bitter aftertaste, "Apartment Zero" is all over the place, capricious and preposterous as the cover of a tabloid newspaper. It gets your attention, makes you laugh and passes the time for a while.

Apartment Zero is unrated but has mature content

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