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'Who's That Girl' (PG)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 08, 1987

Coming out of the new Madonna film, "Who's That Girl," you may not feel as if you've seen a movie. You may not quite know what you've seen. It looks like a movie (sort of). I mean, it's projected on a screen and all that; there are actors acting (boy are there actors acting), cars are wrecked (sounds like a movie), and a camera seems to have been used. In other words, there's every indication that this, in fact, is a movie. But, but, but . . .

For the purposes of review, let's not call "Who's That Girl" a movie; let's call it an experimental work. What kind of experiment is it? The kind conducted in that obscure branch of science where they try to mate monkeys with shellfish.

This said, I admit to laughing at much of the movie. This, I also admit, is not a wholly defensible position. But go ahead, shoot me, I laughed.

The movie is outrageously inept, but not in a routine manner. It's not a snooze, like "Shanghai Surprise"; it's deeply, strangely bad, but in a way that's fascinating. It's got a weird spirit, this movie, and odd bits throughout that keep you going. The plot itself is antic froth. The "Girl" in the title is Nikki Finn, released from prison after four years for a trumped-up murder rap and determined to clear her name. The man sent to put her on the bus back to Philly (where her mother, who thinks she's been shopping, waits) is Loudon Trout (Griffin Dunne), a weaselly tax attorney and high-paid flunky to an eccentric New York real estate giant named Montgomery Bell (Sir John Mills). In addition to being one the city's wealthiest men, Bell also collects rare animals, and one of the central mechanisms in the film is that the large cougarlike kitty -- a Patagonian Felis Concolor -- he's had shipped into the country keeps getting lost, with Nikki's help, of course.

Heedless is the word that best describes Nikki. Deranged would also fit. Loudon, who is big on schedules, has an afternoon appointment the next day to marry Wendy Worthington (Haviland Morris), the young, urban idiot daughter of his immediate superior, Simon Worthington (John McMartin). The senior Worthington isn't particularly pleased with the prospect of his daughter's marriage. All the Oedipal stuff hasn't quite been worked out between father and daughter, and sending Loudon out as a chaperon for Nikki is Daddy's idea. He's trying to get rid of her because she's got dirt on him (though she doesn't know it until late in the movie) and maybe, just maybe, given Nikki's tendency to drive in front of trains and attract bullets, some small tragedy will befall Loudon, too.

Naturally, events take a different turn. After some intial unpleasantness involving a Rolls, a free-lance arms merchant and a trip to the emergency room, Loudon warms to Nikki. The dilemma he's presented with -- choosing between the frisky, unpredictable (poor) Nikki and the shallow, status-conscious (wealthy) Wendy -- is a staple of the genre.

The Loudon character is straight by the book as well. And Griffin Dunne doesn't seem to know what to do with himself. (The movie, not the events within the movie, seems to baffle him.) In "Bringing Up Baby," Cary Grant wore glasses to diminish himself, to make himself appear less desirable. But when he took them off he was Cary Grant. When Griffin Dunne takes off his glasses, it's as if he's still wearing glasses. That's not altogether wrong for the movie; it's just not very exciting.

With Madonna, who's pitched her voice an octave higher -- it's somewhere in the Cyndi Lauper/Judy Holliday range -- and affected a hysterical tipsy cackle, the matter becomes more complicated. "Who's That Girl" may be the first question the movie asks, but we know the answer to that. "What the hell is she doing!" is the second. About the best thing we can say about the performance is this: She made a radical choice and went with it. Within the parameters of that choice, though, she works out some kinky business, and some of her line readings are snapped-off and bright. (She can purr a line too; her "Hello counselor" to Loudon has a lot of Mae West in it, and I loved the way she squealed, "Oooh, a mall!")

On the other hand, she comes up with things that make you wince, and, with her Kabuki harlot makeup -- she has the most outrageous eyebrows since Groucho -- she's grown increasingly hard to look at. The conclusion you come to is that there's evidence of talent here, as there was in "Desperately Seeking Susan," but no sense of what to do with it.

The interesting thing about the movie is that if you give up all hope of its actually working in any conventional sense -- if you stop looking for a plausible narrative, skillful performances, a coherent visual style, taste -- you might enjoy the thing. I can tell you this: I had more fun with it than with "Revenge of the Nerds II" or "Jaws the Revenge" or "Ishtar." (How's that for a list?) And I liked it better than the Eddie Murphy and the Bond films, too.

What the director, James Foley, is trying to do is give the screwball comedies of the '30s a modish, contemporary edge; he's trying to make a "Bringing Up Baby" for the '80s. The animated title credits -- which present Madonna as an amalgam of Betty Boop, Marilyn Monroe and Joan Blondell, strewing chaos in her wake -- provide the key. The rest of the picture is just as cartoonish as the credits -- only the characters are real.

Or sort of real. The problem is that Foley, who also directed "Reckless" and "At Close Range" (starring Sean Penn), doesn't have the skill to sustain a cartoon style. Technique counts for a lot in directing a picture like this -- more perhaps than in any other genre -- and Foley doesn't have any. His approach here is to toss things up into the air without caring much where they land. And as a result, the noise they make when they land is not a pretty one. But to give the thing it's due, it's not a noise I've heard before.

"Who's That Girl" contains no offensive material.

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