In "Three for the Road" (citywide), the movie makers try to revive another day's genre--the early '70's "road" pictures--in today's terms. And it doesn't work. The looser, more anarchic feelings they're going after don't jibe with the modern packaging, and they wind up with something slicked-up, streamlined and hollow--like "Blowing in the Wind" rearranged as elevator music.

The movie throws together three young people on a cross-country car trip--one of them is being forcibly transported to a mental institution--and then asks us to believe that on that furious two-day drive from Washington, D.C., to the South, they undergo a humanizing process and learn to care about each other. But the script, partly by Tim Metcalfe and Miguel Tejada-Flores of "Revenge of the Nerds," has been drained of most of the elements that would show these kids connecting or explain why they finally stand up together against the big machine.

The movie is a machine itself--in mostly forward motion, with rock music, sexual innuendo, caricatures and gags--as if someone were trying to redo "Five Easy Pieces" in the style of "Smokey and the Bandit."

Actually, the basic plot is closer to another Jack Nicholson movie: "The Last Detail," where the two guards wound up carousing with their hapless charge. Here, the prisoner is Robin Kitteredge (Kerri Green), wayward daughter of a U.S. senator--an icy opportunist who wants her incarcerated to smooth up his presidential campaign. Robin's guards are Paul Tracey (Charlie Sheen), the senator's idealistic young aide, and Paul's raffish buddy, T. S. (Alan Ruck).

Problems multiply with the mileage. Robin keeps escaping frenziedly, Paul and T.S. lose their car and clothes, and Robin's estranged mother (Sally Kellerman) is dragged in to provide a plausible escape hatch.

You can catch what's wrong with this movie by listening to T.S.--though it's no fault of Ruck's. This egghead sidekick is supposedly a worshiper of T.S. Eliot (his namesake) and William Faulkner. Yet there's no clue, in T.S.'s lines or phraseology, that he ever reads anything--beyond the lame running gag of having him reject women who like trashy best sellers.

When T.S. meets Missy, his Yoknapatawpha Saga soulmate, and the two of them recite the ending of "Absalom, Absalom" together--in unison!--it's as meaningless as if the guys in "Animal House" formed a Gustave Flaubert fan club, or the Nerds dedicated their Revenge to Vladimir Nabokov. It's tacked-on toniness.

Charlie Sheen doesn't have a real part to play here, but he manages to suggest one. There's a burning, impish, straight-arrow, Kennedyesque gleam in his eyes. And though we know from "Lucas" that Sheen and Kerri Green can get great empathy going, their romance here seems ludicrous. Half the time, during the chases, they're in different cars, and the rest of the time they're often screaming or handcuffing each other.

When did they fall in love? During the one-minute skinny dip? While Robin ate with her toes in the fancy restaurant? In some scene that was cut to get the story going faster? This isn't like the odd coupling in "Something Wild," built up lucidly out of offbeat character touches. Here, the romance, like the adventure and the idealism, is all high concept. You have to take it on faith, as part of the package.

The director, B.W.L. Norton, started out in the "road movie" era, with 1972's "Cisco Pike." And, despite any pace or zip he gets, it's sad to watch his film slide into '80s mass-market mediocrity. "Three for the Road" (rated PG) keeps grabbing at the past and coming up empty. It's as if the spirit were willing, but the flesh weak--and the machine stronger than either.


A New Century/Vista Film Co. release. Producers Herb Jaffe, Mort Engelberg. Director B.W.L. Norton. Script Richard Martini, Tim Metcalfe, Miguel Tejada-Flores. Camera Steve Posey. Associate producer/editor Christopher Greenbury. Music Barry Goldberg. With Charlie Sheen, Kerri Green, Alan Ruck, Sally Kellerman, Blaire Tefkin, Raymond J. Barry.

Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.

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

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