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The Souler Opposite

Friday October 2, 1998

     "The Souler Opposite"--a play on "polar opposite"--fits neatly into the romantic comedy genre yet also transcends it with uncommon wit and sensitivity. The result is a spiky, engaging love story that aims considerably higher than the usual lowest common denominator of so many mainstream movies.
     In his feature debut, writer-director Bill Kalmenson signals us early on that we may be in for something special. He opens the film with a scene in which a couple of teenage Valley boys are talking about sex, then fast-forwards 20 years--moving from 1971 to 1991--without breaking their conversation. In this way Kalmenson deftly makes the point that in their 30s, Christopher Meloni's Barry and Timothy Busfield's Robert are still talking about women in the same way they did as teens.
     Robert is now a dentist whose marriage is not as solid as he thinks it is, and Barry is a struggling stand-up comic who, as he says in his act, "is looking for a woman to like him for who he pretends to be."
     The question Kalmenson, himself a stand-up comic and actor, poses with considerable grace and insight: Can a comic who indulges in humor in his act that is inescapably sexist and a feminist college senior find love and happiness? When Barry and Janel Moloney's Thea meet, they certainly do strike each other as polar opposites, but of course this is not the case.
     Kalmenson and his actors develop Barry and Thea's exceedingly wary relationship with impressive skill, as Thea becomes willing to look beyond Barry's compulsive jokester personality to a man capable of extraordinary tenderness and vulnerability. Barry has fallen so hard and so fast for Thea that he opens himself completely to her. He wants the same from her, but it never occurs to him that he may not be prepared to receive the total trust he so craves.
     That Kalmenson is drawing from personal experience surely gives his film its resonance. Through Barry and Thea we're able to perceive the whole issue of commitment in the skeptical '90s, and it is refreshing to watch people who are smart and don't hide it.
     Both Meloni and Moloney are exciting discoveries for those of us who have not seen them before. Possessed of great intensity, Meloni is a mature performer, well-seasoned on TV. Moloney has a style that recalls Diane Keaton but not so strongly that she doesn't come across as a distinctive personality. As a "thirtysomething" alumnus, Busfield is probably better known than the film's stars and is a delight in his own right, heading a substantial supporting cast that includes John Putch as a political campaign organizer who may be the next man in Thea's life. "The Souler Opposite" looks as if it cost more than it probably did and especially benefits from Peter Himmelman's score, as elegant as it is unobtrusive.


The Souler Opposite, 1998. R, for language and sex-related material. A Buffalo Jump Productions presentation. Writer-director Bill Kalmenson. Producer Tani Cohen. Cinematographer Amit Bhattacharya. Editor Timothy Snell. Costumes Lynn Bernay. Music Peter Himmelman. Production designer Jane Anne Stewart. Set decorator Renee Davenport. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes. Christopher Meloni as Barry Singer. Janel Moloney as Thea Douglas. Timothy Busfield as Robert Levin. John Putch as Lester.

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