“Off Beat” (selected theaters) is a gentle, humanistic little romantic comedy about Joe Gower (Judge Reinhold), a stacks runner at the New York City Public Library, whose impersonation of his police officer buddy (Cleavant Derricks)--for an amateur dance concert with an all-cop cast--leads him into a love affair with a policewoman (Meg Tilly) and a set of increasingly perilous confrontations with criminals and cops.

It’s a “harmless” deception that mushrooms out of control--like the Wilder-Sturges-Hawks-Capra classics “Off Beat” obviously wants to recall. But to a degree, that’s also what happens to the movie. (The beat goes a little bit off at the very beginning; and the off-rhythms build and take over.) What goes wrong is not necessarily the core situation. The police ballet concert was inspired by real life: the amateur concerts with community members staged by Jacques D’Amboise of the American Dance Institute, who not only choreographed the movie but also plays the character, August, modeled after him.

“Off Beat” is a character comedy, but a puzzlingly unfunny one. It shows a pedigree, a lot of skill in all departments; it’s not one of those dumb, misbegotten projects where the mistakes keep building and reinforcing each other. But it lacks giddiness, comic energy. The cast is uniformly good; the writing (by playwright Mark Medoff) is intelligent and sometimes sprightly; and the movie has been beautifully shot (by Carlo Di Palma) and edited (by Dede Allen). James Horner’s score is fine; and director Michael Dinner has a comic style of real depth and finesse--as he demonstrated in last year’s parochial school comedy, “Heaven Help Us.”


So why is it so impossible to buy this movie? Why can’t you suspend disbelief for more than a few minutes at a time? There’s something wrong with the tone of “Off Beat”: It’s a little too labored, too calm and serious, particularly for a notion this frothy--but there also may be something fatally wrong with the whole idea.

Why on earth, for example, would Patrolman Derricks allow Reinhold to imperil them both like this--continue an illegal disguise that seems bound to end in disaster? (Friendship--or simple embarrassment after the disguise commences--aren’t good enough motives.) Why is Reinhold so oblivious to every potential danger? And why can’t Tilly see through his ineptitudes? (Love may be blind, but here it seems catatonic.) Why is the jealous, truculent cop who menaces Reinhold at the beginning no factor past the halfway point? And why does Balanchine protege D’Amboise select two such lackluster dancers as his stars?

There’s a way to stitch over all these problems--and that’s exactly what Capra or Sturges (or Hecht or Rafelson) would have done: They would have disguised all the seams, answered all your objections. That’s part of the special genius of comedy writing and directing: making the whole crazy machine functional. Medoff and Dinner don’t do it--and they also don’t put you in that susceptible, rollicking mood where plausibility doesn’t really matter.

In a way, it’s a shame. Everyone in the movie is so good--at least in sections--that its failure to work is almost painful. (Especially good are Derricks, Tilly, and Harvey Keitel and Victor Argo as a pair of klutzy bank robbers.) It’s like a screwball comedy done straight, a cocktail without fizz. It’s a mad premise done with too much sanity. Perhaps it could have used some of the manic glee of the young Jack Lemmon at its center, rather than the loosey-goosey amiably whacked-out quality Reinhold gives accidental cop Joe Gower.

‘OFF BEAT’ A Touchstone Films presentation in association with Silver Screen Partners II, of an Ufland/Roth/Ladd production. Producers Joe Roth, Harry Ufland. Director Michael Dinner. Script Mark Medoff. Camera Carlo Di Palma. Editors Dede Allen, Angelo Corrao. Music James Horner. With Judge Reinhold, Meg Tilly, Cleavant Derricks, Joe Mantegna, Jacques D’Amboise, Harvey Keitel, Fred Gwynne, Anthony Zerbe, Victor Argo.

Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.

MPAA rating: PG (parental guidance suggested; some material may not be suitable for children).