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MOVIE REVIEW : AN EXERCISE IN IMPERFECTION

<i> Times Film Critic</i>

If “Perfect” (citywide) didn’t have a germ of an idea tucked away in all its posturing silliness, it wouldn’t be quite so infuriating. But it has: Superficially it’s about sliding-scale morality in journalism today, a not uninteresting subject. However, any claim its makers, producer-director James Bridges and co-writer Aaron Latham, have to seriousness dissolves as the film becomes more voyeuristic and manipulative than the profession it indicts.

Bridges’ work, as a writer or director or combination of the two, has usually had a point to make about contemporary life, from its imminent dangers (“The China Syndrome”) to its crumbling edges (“Mike’s Murder”) to the pressures on its young (“The Paper Chase”). Using an earlier Latham life-style article for Esquire as a springboard, Bridges also made “Urban Cowboy,” which was hot, slick and wonderful fun.

Lightning has not struck the same gang twice. “Perfect” gives us John Travolta as a self-assured Rolling Stone reporter who has been known to carve up a subject or two in print in the past. (The proper journalistic attitude is laid out as Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, playing himself under a fictitious name, barks: “When you sit down to write, forget you’ve got a mother!”)

A man of steel, over whom jet lag has no dominion, Travolta is (almost) simultaneously following two major stories on the East and the West coasts, one eerily like the DeLorean case, the second--his fluff piece--on narcissistic Los Angeles health clubs, “the singles bars of the ‘80s.”

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Only Jamie Lee Curtis, as the Sports Connection’s “Pied Piper of aerobics” stiffs Travolta’s ingratiating technique as he begins filling up a notebook with interviews to fit his preconceived thesis. Workout regulars Marilu Henner and Laraine Newman are only too pathetically eager to turn out the pockets of their lives for his avid, amused interest. (Newman’s one scene of unbridled jealousy in the face of her friend’s unexpected joy is the film’s single memorable moment.)

Curtis, it seems, has been seriously burned by a journalist once before. Wary and suspicious, it takes her perhaps three meetings before she succumbs entirely to Travolta’s charm and coyly taps out two little words of seduction on his portable computer.

The sweaty sports cookies don’t rate this writer’s undivided attention, however. Between seductions and crippling aerobics workouts, Travolta jets back East on pressing “DeLorean” business (the man will tell his side of the cocaine sting to Travolta and only Travolta, bypassing the New York Times, “60 Minutes” and Geraldo Rivera). You don’t feel any real urgency to what should be the crucial matters that follow: questions of journalistic integrity involving First Amendment rights. The anemic development of this next section reveals it for what it is, a high-principled plot device, precisely calibrated to make Travolta look heroic in Curtis’ jaded eyes.

But all the film’s “serious” questions are as suspect as its grandly hilarious portrait of a working journalist and his world. (Self-portrait, no less, since “Perfect” grew from Latham’s own Rolling Stone article “Looking for Mr. Goodbody.”) As you might guess, this is no way to run a magazine, and any magazine run this way (by headstrong writers, arrogant photographers and crude, ignorant editors) wouldn’t survive to see its first anniversary edition--not even Rolling Stone.

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(On the other hand, “Perfect’s” view of journalism is about on a par with its view of everyone west of Trump Towers: all young; all--even members of the FBI--vacantly handsome and suntanned; almost all with the IQs of a flat rock.)

Travolta performs with no edge to his character whatever, and the direction further confuses things by never letting us understand whether he’s generally unprincipled or just a regular guy who from time to time does lousy things. There is no sense that Travolta has a rotten side or even an assertive one: always sweet, shyly eager to please, he can play the puppy, not the yuppie journalist.

It’s Curtis who has the strength of the film, which is entirely physical. Gordon Willis’ camera makes her endless, exhausting aerobics sessions into the film’s musical numbers--long, loud, sweaty, musical breaks, during all of which Curtis looks perfectly furious.

What does she have to be angry about? She’s on the screen; we’re the ones out here in the audience.

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