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‘The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag’ (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 21, 1992

"The Gun in Betty Lou's Handbag" is deadly, particularly in the hands of Allan Moyle, whose aim to please is off considerably. A director who established himself as wildly inconsistent in the teen trauma "Pump Up the Volume," Moyle shoots himself in the foot here when he adds two disgustingly violent scenes to this puffy romantic comedy. Somehow a mousy wife's foolish attempt to get back at her neglectful husband doesn't quite work with random death by shiv through the ear hole. It's a bit like finding a severed head in an Easter basket.

The real loser in all this is Penelope Ann Miller, the struggling actress who plays Betty Lou, a shy part-time librarian who becomes more confident after confessing to a murder she didn't commit. Miller, who has been consistently charming mostly in films nobody ever sees ("Year of the Comet," for instance), is sweetly convincing, if a touch too delicate for the character's final evolution into a whiskey-swilling, dirty-dancing, crime-fighting action gal.

It all begins when her husband Alex (Eric Thal), a police detective, leaves her alone on their wedding anniversary to investigate a murder -- a rare occurrence in tiny Tetley, Mo. When she and her Boston terrier (named Scarlett O'Hara for her favorite heroine) find the murder weapon, Betty Lou says she dunit to get Alex's attention. Once slapped behind bars, she becomes a local celebrity, a subject of media scrutiny and the object of her husband's complete preoccupation. He doesn't believe her story -- that the victim was her lover -- and continues his investigations on her behalf in other directions.

Unfortunately Betty Lou also attracts the interest of the FBI, which wants to use her as the bait to snare a vicious Cajun crime boss (William Forsythe), whose former employee was the murder victim. It's almost too late when Alex learns of the G-men's plan, but happily he can come to his wife's rescue. Betty Lou is not one to let a little new-found assertiveness ruin her man's fragile ego. She didn't have a happy hooker (Cathy Moriarty) for a jail-house mentor for nothing.

Moriarty's turn as sexy cellmate Reba Bush ("no relation"), is absolutely delicious, even if the heart-of-gold thing is as trite as the introverted library lady. She and the dog steal the show, not that their larceny gains them much in this low-caliber dud.

"The Gun in Betty Lou's Handbag" is rated PG-13 for violence and profanity.

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