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Kin and Tonic: Daughters Lie, Bake, and Steal in Three New Dramas

You can change your address, your politics, your nose, your hair. But your DNA? That’s trickier. Once your parents pass on those nucleotides, there’s little escape from biology.

You can hear that genetic expression loud and clear in three new plays concerning the vexed relationships between daughters and parents: Amanda Peet’s The Commons of Pensacola at Manhattan Theatre Club, Meghan Kennedy’s Too Much, Too Much, Too Many at Roundabout, and Dominique Morisseau’s Sunset Baby, produced by the Labyrinth Theatre Company.

Each drama unfurls in a single interior, though the individual settings and characters vary widely. The mind can scarcely conceive a scenario in which Kennedy’s steadfast Midwesterners would encounter Peet’s frenetic Floridians or Morisseau’s hustling East New Yorkers. (Though that’s a play I’d like to see. Maybe.) Two of the scripts (Peet’s and Morisseau’s) attempt to look beyond the wages of kin, but all three succeed best when focused on intricate, intimate, inescapable bonds.

Were Peet not established as an actor, it seems doubtful Commons would have procured such a prominent space or starry cast. A competent if stock affair, it unfolds in a characterless Florida condo where Judith (Blythe Danner) has alighted, her assets forfeited after her husband’s imprisonment. Her struggling daughter, Becca (Sarah Jessica Parker), joins her there, along with a younger beau who envisions a docu-series based on Judith’s plight.

With only a few adjustments, you could rejigger the show as an advanced seminar in poor impulse control and suspect decision-making. Every character acts irresponsibly: Diabetic Judith sneaks ice cream; Becca contemplates a baby with a man who should have a warning label tattooed on his pecs.

Compelling themes rear — culpability, moral obligation — only to slump back into incessant chatter and contrived plotting. The action unspools predictably with a used condom taking on the dropped handkerchief role. Danner ably mixes salty and frail, while Parker mostly seems like a woman merely playing at desperation until she rallies in a fine late scene. Together, they present a dual portrait of women so enwrapped in and enraptured by their own suffering that they can’t comfort one another.

For a gentler vision of mother-daughter relationships, descend to the Roundabout Underground for Too Much, Too Much, Too Many. Though the script veers perilously near precious, Kennedy and director Sheryl Kaller ground the play in concrete emotion and unshowy performances.

Since the drowning of her husband some months ago, Rose (Phyllis Somerville, lively and elegant) has locked herself in her bedroom, crafting her obituary and dictating cherished recipes to her daughter, Emma (Rebecca Henderson, stalwart). Emma has all but given up trying to coax her mother out until the revival of a new pastor (Luke Kirby, sympathetic) revivifies both women.

Kennedy could stand to lose the mild magical realism, the sentimental bent, and some of Rose’s airier lines. “I could write the recipe to your breath,” she tells her dead husband. But the love of the characters for one another — much deeper and more forthright than in Commons — gives this meditation on grief a flavor more sweet than bitter.

You couldn’t say the same of Morisseau’s indignant Sunset Baby. Kenyatta (John Earl Jelks, no-nonsense), a former black revolutionary, abandoned his daughter, Nina (DeWanda Wise, commanding and severe), decades ago. Now he comes in search of letters willed to Nina by her dead mother. Nina isn’t interested. “Do not say my name as if you’ve said it a hundred times,” she tells him. “We are not familiar. We are not close. We are not in sync.” But Morisseau’s play suggests they are. Kenyatta wanted to remake society. Nina just wants to fund her escape from it. Yet both are roughened and toughened by life, incapable of admitting weakness or declaring love.

Though Morisseau is a powerful writer, her words don’t yet emerge from character. Kenyatta, Nina, and her boyfriend, Damon (a nicely volatile Harvey Gardner Moore), all speak in the same sharp, staccato poetry, an imperfect fit with the realistic environment conjured by director Kamilah Forbes and the various designers.

The broader issues — varied definitions of living outside the law, the cost of political commitment — are addressed only glancingly. But the failure of Kenyatta and Nina’s relationship rings clear and hard and true, particularly when Nina confesses her secret desire. “I don’t want a hustle or no fast money. I want a home,” she says. “I want some kids of my own.” But won’t she simply repeat her parents’ mistakes? Blood tells — more frankly and fluently than most of us would like.

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The Commons of Pensacola

Amanda Peet has a very pretty face. But the actress is out to prove she’s more than an assemblage of symmetrical features by making her playwriting debut. Manhattan Theatre Club presents this comedy of fractured family, starring Blythe Danner as none too gay divorcee and Sarah Jessica Parker as her difficult daughter.

Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays, 2 p.m.; Tuesdays, Wednesdays, 7 p.m.; Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Starts: Oct. 23. Continues through Feb. 9, 2013

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The Break of Noon and The Red Shoes Play With Souls and Soles

Theater attracts the obsessional. Who else could possibly enjoy the endless repetitions that rehearsal requires, could thrill to the rigors of a cue-to-cue? Perhaps craft tables ought to stock Paxil near the throat lozenges. Recently, two plays turned their diagnostic gaze on two such personalities. In Neil LaBute’s The Break of Noon, at MCC, office drone John Smith (no relation to the Pocahontas romancer, perhaps some to Mormonism’s founder) becomes infatuated with the voice of God. In Kneehigh’s The Red Shoes, at St. Ann’s Warehouse, the heroine is captivated by the scarlet footwear. The moral of these stories is that you can always get what you want, with unhappy consequences.

God rarely appears in Neil LaBute’s plays, though his scripts typically include much devilry. Yet his latest explicitly concerns that Father figure. In the midst of a uniquely brutal workplace shooting, Smith (David Duchovny, haggard and handsome) hears a heavenly voice. Just what that voice says changes according to whom he is explaining it. At the murder scene, he tells a cop that God said, “Remain here and you will be safe, John.” To a catty talk-show host (Tracee Chimo), he reveals the Lord’s words as “We should try and be good. You know, like ‘kind.’ ” Later, before an audience of the faithful, he will change them again.

Though Smith preaches the gospel to his fellow men, this doctrinal kindness doesn’t extend to women. He insults his ex-wife (Amanda Peet), antagonizes his mistress (Peet again, with bigger hair), defies the television host, and reduces a perfectly nice prostitute (Chimo in a maid outfit) to tears. (If LaBute does not relish being labeled anti-woman, someday he might write a scene in which his protagonist declines to shout at one.) It seems that his obsession hasn’t made Smith any holier; it has merely provided greater scope for his arrogance and venality.

Several characters accuse Smith of sham faith, but LaBute and director Jo Bonney leave the question of his sincerity ambiguous. Too often LaBute has relied on easy shock tactics—cruelty, profanity, extreme misanthropy. They’re present here, but he also introduces a topic that might legitimately distress the liberal audience who attend his plays: sudden and serious conversion.

Kneehigh director Emma Rice converted many to her brand of fairy-tale theatrics with Brief Encounter, now running on Broadway. With The Red Shoes, which she adapted from the gruesome Hans Christian Andersen story, Rice presents a work no less skillful, if far more grim.

Four actors and two musicians—all sporting the shaved heads and filthy underwear of concentration camp habitués—and a fright-wigged narrator perform the tale of a girl quite smitten with the titular shoes (here a rather clunky pair of clogs). Soon the desired slippers begin to control her, forcing her to dance unceasingly. They cause her so much pain she pleads with a butcher to cut her feet off in spectacularly grisly fashion. (The producers recommend this show for tots 8 and up; I don’t.) Toward the play’s close, the narrator murmurs, “Can anyone of us ever escape our obsessions?” Likely not. But the next time I see a pair of Louboutins on sale, I’m running the other way.

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What Doesn’t Kill You

Cuddly recidivism marked Mark Ruffalo’s first attention-getting role in You Can Count on Me, squirming within family ties and into our hearts. In the equally ill-titled What Doesn’t Kill You, he’s a backsliding Southie hood, passing his wife and angelic kids on the way out to petty shakedowns. Like his desperately zealous partner, Paulie (Ethan Hawke), Brian (Ruffalo) has outgrown his life, but has nothing to replace it. Ex-tough Brian Goodman, who plays their local crime boss, directs his own screenplayed memories, double-timing through the duo’s gambits and their prison stint into Brian’s recovery trudge from coke. For a “before” stage of rhino-like oblivion, Ruffalo draws on his knack for summoning an incongruous brooding bulk from within, and the result almost sucks the air from Hawke’s rangy routine of nerves and sinewy smiles. In the straight-and-narrow struggle post-clink, Ruffalo lacks rapport with Amanda Peet as the long-suffering wife. (Donnie Wahlberg, who co-wrote the script, also drives by now and again as an on-to-you sergeant.) Goodman’s movie tends to limp along, but he naturally gets Boston in winter and steers clear of Gone Baby Gone grotesques: An opening helicopter shot centers on a resolutely boring apartment building.

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Cold Feet

The gloom over the new revival of Barefoot in the Park is no surprise to me: In my book, Neil Simon was never a playwright. Forty years ago, a canny director and lovable actors could make this thin string of jokes seem adorable, but decades after the candy’s been eaten, who needs the stale box?

The tenuous tale of a newlywed couple’s struggles with a tiny Greenwich Village flat would look quaintly passé today even if there were some reality to it, but Scott Elliott’s direction, passionately pursuing the minutiae of the reality that isn’t there, snuffs out any slight hint of playfulness. Amanda Peet, as the would-be bohemian young wife, acts strictly by the numbers. The dubious midlife romance of her suburban mom and the shifty sybarite upstairs is embodied by Jill Clayburgh and Tony Roberts, solid but resolutely uncomic professionals who can service an existing laugh (the script holds about six) but not create a new one. Only Patrick Wilson, skilled at taking center stage in musicals, brings dimension and humor to the role of the priggish bridegroom. And speaking of reality, Elliott’s choice of ’60s music is as far from the characters’ tastes as Isaac Mizrahi’s self-conscious designer clothes would be from their wardrobes.

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Film

At long last love: Kutcher and Peet take forever to connect

A Lot Like Love exemplifies the happiness-deferred romance, in which two friends-but-should-be-paramours repeatedly convene, separate, and reconvene over several years, finally staying together only after feature run-time has elapsed. Skimming through lonely stretches and careerist angst, the movie focuses on incidents that threaten the final hookup. But the chemistry between diaper salesman Ashton Kutcher and photo hound Amanda Peet is so off that the pairing scans as an alienation effect—one enhanced by their age difference, as well as Peet’s resemblance (in her goth, graduate-age New York scenes) to an unwaxed Demi Moore. The banter soon develops a rhythm: Hurting from a breakup, Peet gets too drunk to nuzzle and Kutcher doesn’t complain; years later, on a car trip, Kutcher whines about his ex and Peet shrugs it off. Interjections from perennial second bananas Kathryn Hahn (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) and Kal Penn (winning even when not conjuring vivified bags of pot) generate the only sparks. BEN KENIGSBERG


BROOKLYN UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL

April 20 through 24, Brooklyn Lyceum

The third annual Brooklyn Underground Film Festival justifies its nascent existence with a respectable collection of 100 films from 12 countries—opening with Abel Raises Cain, a daughter’s-eye view of notorious prankster Alan Abel, which won the documentary prize at Slamdance, and closing with Caroline Martel’s hour-long montage of telephone company movies The Phantom of the Operator (recently screened at MOMA). Film critics should relate to Alan Zweig’s I, Curmudgeon, a lively film about “negative charisma.” An extended rant from a group of misanthropes—including Harvey Pekar, Fran Lebowitz, and Mark Eitzel—Zweig’s deeply personal documentary offers chronic dissatisfaction as a noble philosophy. These talking heads spout weary wisdom on coping with a culture of positivity and raging against the collective inertia of a world running away from truth. One interviewee recounts an overheard definition of the titular term: “one who emanates a low murmuring.” While inevitably futile in the face of Bush-era social degeneration, I, Curmudgeon‘s murmur has the form of a Ginsbergian howl.

Another dictionary definition haunts Zev Asher’s haphazard Casuistry: The Art of Killing a Cat (opening next week). Casuistry, or justifying the unjustifiable through rationalization, becomes Canadian art student Jesse Power’s raison d’être after he pleads guilty to the videotaped 2001 ritual murder of a domesticated cat. Power can’t mask his demented fixations, but he might have a point about the double standards of a meat-devouring, pet-murder-decrying contemporary society. Art or cruelty? I’d say both. AKIVA GOTTLIEB


MADISON

Directed by William Bindley

MGM, opens April 22

Madison‘s titular Indiana burg inhabits Frank Capra’s timeless, preposterously simple Americana vacuum, but its moneylenders have better customer service than those in Bedford Falls. When racer Jim Caviezel needs a few days to cover the check he’s written for the privilege of Madison hosting a gold-cup hydroplane competition, he just asks the local bank to stall. “What is this, Mayberry?” asks a snobbish regatta lord. Shelved since 2001, and released now presumably to ride the Passionate coattails of its working-class hero, Madison peddles condescending hokum as heartland values. A “true story” set in 1971, the movie yet stands provincially aloof from that era’s divisive war and raging civil battles. The Straight Story, a similarly Midwestern inspirational yarn, pairs a decrepit tractor with the ancient wounds of World War II. Imagine what David Lynch could have done with a speedboat and Southeast Asia still burning. The supporting cast includes the reliable Paul Dooley (whose Breaking Away Hoosier was flintier than this bunch), a docile Bruce Dern, and Jake Lloyd, who more or less reprises his Phantom Menace pip-squeak irritant. BENJAMIN STRONG


THE MAN WHO COPIED

Written and directed by Jorge Furtado

TLA, opens April 22, Quad

A coming-of-age rom-com with a dark streak as wide as the Amazon, The Man Who Copied squanders the chance to explore the plight of Brazil’s young working poor. Instead, it first defines poverty as the inability to buy cool sneakers and impress girls. By the time the exposition-heavy first half devolves into the implausible second half, poverty justifies counterfeiting, armed robbery, and murder. Narrating in an unrelenting voice-over, a 20-year-old copy-store clerk (Lázaro Ramos) spies with binoculars on a girl who lives across the street (Leandra Leal) and stalks her at the store where she works. He can’t afford to ask her out on a date, so he pretends to be comparison shopping for a birthday present for his mom. To keep up the ruse, he starts xeroxing banknotes to pay for the gift. He then has to cook up increasingly elaborate schemes to cover up his earlier scams. Soon the law of diminishing returns kicks in for characters and audience alike. In spite of some genuinely charming performances, The Man Who Copied is about as engaging as a paper jam. JORGE MORALES


NIGHT OF HENNA

Written and directed by Hassan Zee

Illuminare, opens April 22, ImaginAsian

San Francisco indie striver Hassan Zee’s Pakistani American spin on Monsoon Wedding hobbles a likable cast with dialogue flatter than Bollywood’s cheesiest. His premise is workable: Soon after beautiful Pakistan-educated Hava (Pooja Kumar) returns to her California family, she is doffing her scarf, working in a café, and crushing out on Justin (Craig Marker), a blond music major who serenades her with Sufi-style guitar. The relationship is mirrored by another cross-cultural romance—this one between Hava’s arranged fiancé, Salman (Suhail Tayeb), and his college squeeze. The look of the film is professional, and nuanced passing scenes hint at deep cultural rifts between the lovebirds—at one point we watch Justin happily smoking pot by the ocean with friends, something he won’t readily share with Hava. But as written, Hava’s parents are cartoons, and her rapid Westernization is of the hokey “But I want to go to college” variety (Kumar’s Pakistani accent also vacillates wildly). Worse yet, Zee’s twentysomethings seem to live outside the pop matrix that would give their temptations a more urgent, mall-culture sheen. And the resolution, which simply supplants arranged marriage with love marriage, leaves tough topics of long-term dating and sex to a bolder film. LAURA SINAGRA

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By way of an ‘unreliable narrator,’ LaBute builds an unconvincing play

An elaborate contrivance carefully dressed up to look like slapdash improvisation, Neil LaBute’s This Is How It Goes touches on enough subjects to avoid coming to grips with any of them. By the end of its lengthy-feeling 90 minutes, you’re wondering if its pseudo-improvisational pose isn’t a setup concealing the absence of a play. The place is “a small town in America.” (They’re all alike, you know.) Cody (Jeffrey C. Wright) and Belinda (Amanda Peet), high school sweethearts, have been married a decade. Back into their life comes the story’s self-described “unreliable narrator” (Ben Stiller), whose name we never learn. Cody owns a prosperous chain of stores; the couple lives in a mansion. They lease the narrator, a high school acquaintance who’s mysteriously junked a law career and wants to become a writer (uh-oh), the guest flat over their second garage. Tensions ensue, in the course of which the marriage breaks up and the narrator finds himself in a new situation.

LaBute fancies up this not particularly exciting story partly by not telling it—the narrator shows us alternative versions of some scenes—and partly by revealing a second, clandestine story behind it. Everybody turns out to have a private agenda, everybody’s involved in some secret deal: It’s a conspiracy theorist’s view of life. That we’re not interested enough in the first story to be shocked by the second doesn’t make the contrivance any more convincing. LaBute is clever at inventing don’t-go-there scenes that shock the conventionally minded: His man of color is a wife abuser and a schemer; his white narrator indulges in racist rants and then explains that he didn’t mean them. But the seeming realism, like everything else onstage, is only a posture: We never learn enough trustworthy data about the narrator to make his racism seem anything but a trick LaBute’s playing on us; what we learn about his landlords hardly seems to parse as fact. A wealthy couple with a hilltop mansion who lunch at Arby’s and shop at Wal-Mart? Something’s wrong with this picture. George C. Wolfe’s neatly calibrated production keeps the factitiousness moving smoothly. Peet is sweetly vulnerable, Wright suavely self-aggrandizing, Stiller alternately grating and ingratiating in just the right proportions. But LaBute’s just like Hollywood in Oscar Levant’s famous remark: Strip away the phony tinsel and you find the real tinsel underneath.

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Clipped Wings

Rich people are different from you and me; they’re not nearly as funny. “Do you know where your sterling performance is going to take you now, little man?” Mimi Slocumb (Susan Sarandon) asks her perpetually delinquent son Igby (Kieran Culkin), in Igby Goes Down (MGM, opens September 13). “Choate?” comes the sassy response. Inchoate is more like it. One needn’t have been deprived of a prep-school education, don’t you know, to be peeved by Burr Steers’s laxly structured debut, a poor man’s Catcher in the Rye as conceived of by the Hemlock Society (call it How I Killed My Mother). On the lam from military school, tadpole Igby pulls into New York, where he interferes in the affairs of his moneybags godfather (Jeff Goldblum), dips into the demimonde (Jared Harris and Amanda Peet) and drug running, and is the losing point of a love triangle with cloves-puffing Bennington sylph Sookie Saperstein (Claire Danes) and his own older brother, Oliver (Ryan Phillippe).

Culkin broods and freaks out ably, but Igby’s snotty, dysfunction-derived malaise remains off-putting, mostly because his lines aren’t half as clever or empathic as Steers would believe. Rushmore‘s Max Fischer wouldn’t be caught dead telling lame New Jersey jokes, and the final-reel play at morbid gravitas (despised mother asks her sons to snuff her out) only invites unfavorable comparison to Harold and Maude.


The premise of Barbershop (MGM, opens September 13) is as hackneyed as they come, but the overall mood is less cynical than affectionate. Calvin Palmer (Ice Cube) struggles to keep the Chicago barbershop he inherited from his warmhearted late father, but he’s soon forced to seek a loan shark who, after some rudimentary wheeling and dealing, basically winds up with the deed to the place. Faced with the possibility that the family business will be turned into a barbershop-themed strip joint (if it’s not the Players Club, forget it!), Calvin tries to return the cash, only to learn that the interest is apparently 100 percent per diem.

Puffing alongside the central story is the attempt of two buffoons to secretly open a stolen ATM unit. That the impenetrable machine is actually empty suggests a piercing metaphor for modern man, but only headaches emerge from these rackety interludes. Relief comes in the form of Original King of Comedy Cedric the Entertainer, who, as old-time razorman Eddie, expertly blends lethargy and inspiration amid the Afro picks and Barbicide. To the disbelief and delight of the other shop denizens, he skewers an impressive roster of black America’s sacred cows, from Rosa Parks to O.J.—raising the film’s temperature and dropping parts of speech along the way.

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Dairy Tales

A shaggy, appealing parable involving two lovers, some gorgeous heifers, gentle Maori gangster-golfers, and a dilapidated suitcase packed with used baby shoes, The Price of Milk throws itself onto the magic-realist sword with aplomb. The bewitching visuals float a gnarly fairy-tale plot. Lucinda (Danielle Cormack), in an effort to spice up her too idyllic union with dairyman Rob (Karl Urban), trades away his cows to get her stolen quilt back, thus triggering a succession of heavy romantic foibles, dream spurts, and odd graphic puns: A bathtub fills with Lucinda’s tears in an open grazing field; a woman peers through a window while her true love walks in place, his heart braking him.

The Price of Milk skirts cute by a hair’s breadth—the only liability, really, is a floaty, rarefied musical score. Cormack, a frizzy, pneumatic spin on Bridget Fonda, mediates Price‘s madness; within the flaky landscapes beats a quilted and raggedy heart, and it’s difficult not to be touched by Rob and Lucinda boomeranging back into each others’ loving arms.


More surreal is Saving Silverman, a sharp-dumb, jack- and goof-off affair. Despite an early, zesty deluge of gags (an old man is pantsed; a cheerleader’s pantied crotch shines on the title character), it soon settles down to an anxious man-a-thon. The story involves a devil-girl psychiatrist, Judith (Amanda Peet), who takes a guy away from his childhood friends, and said friends attempt to take back his dick and return it to his first love, a blond would-be nun (Amanda Detmer).

As the villain, Peet clearly wields the brains to harness Jack Black, Steve Zahn, and Jason Biggs, this movie’s decentered male threesome. They spot her early on in a TGI Friday’s: She’s clad in red, reading a red book with a gleaming (though unlit) red bulb on the table. (If nothing else, Saving Silverman confirms Peet’s title as filmdom’s most durable manhood-snatcher.) Alongside Jack Black, she rescues the flick from director Dennis Dugan’s flip, hassling rhythms. Dugan—who’d previously lensed Beverly Hills Ninja and Big Daddy—does his smeary duty here, mainly by dispatching Biggs early on and setting Black loose to mug.

Timed less for Valentine’s Day than the Silence of the Lambs sequel, SS blares Hannibalia: Peet restrained in a catcher’s mask, a joke about eating her and eating her out, two nuts tracking her with night-vision goggles. The watchful testicle called Black injects archness and fun into the movie mainly by evoking Chris Farley recast as a Method actor.

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Sexual Reference

Though he’s no Jean Baudrillard, writer-director Neil Turitz understands the viral nature of quoting movies, television, and disco giants. His first feature, Two Ninas, positively radiates lessons he’s learned from identification with junky populist culture. Starting with postcard shots that hit the brain as if snorted through dozens of other prettified Manhattan movie views, this twentysomething romantic comedy soon trolls onto a few more clichés: the direct-to-viewer speech (“Marty needed to get laid”) intercut with canned breakup lines.

This crummy opening aside, Two Ninas manages to gracefully step out of the way of its own referential overload. The narrator (Bray Poor) turns out to be a sympathetic foil to Marty (Morrissey clone Ron Livingston), a downbeat Kramer to Marty’s soured Jerry. The titular opposites, Ninas Cara Buono and Amanda Peet, meet and fall for Marty within a few days of each other. The resulting clash manages a decent degree of genuine heartbreak as he opts for the wrong one. Peet gives her lines a gamey, hot monotony; small wonder that her coitus needs to be scored to Beethoven’s Ninth.

The movie initially looks like the most recent fixture in a long line of ennui-fried Gen-ecchhs screen nods to Tarantino, Woody Allen, Caddyshack, Budweiser, Seinfeld, Barry White, and coolness. Two Ninas eclipses turgidities like Reality Bites, Threesome, and Sleep With Me on the level of soul and character; like any of the above, it unfurls as flypaper for dominant pop paradigms and stupid debates (Leno vs. Letterman, Babe Ruth vs. Ted Williams), but it knows the stinging limits of this anticommunication, as when Marty attempts an apology only to accidentally quote a line from American Gigolo. This cruise down a movie- and TV-guided cul-de-sac is, as the saying goes, sad but true.