Times Staff Writer

There’s a nifty moment that sums up the charm of James Toback’s overly slight romantic comedy “The Pick-Up Artist” (citywide). It occurs when Robert Downey, in the title role, crumples a piece of paper covered with phone numbers and throws it away at the demand of Molly Ringwald, whom he is ardently pursuing. Just in case he fails to charm her, he surreptitiously retrieves the paper.

With his you-win-some, lose-some attitude, Downey’s Jack Jericho, a Manhattan private schoolteacher, is undaunted by anything or anyone until he encouters Ringwald’s Randy Jensen, an auburn-haired beauty who’s a guide at the Museum of Natural History.

Ever since Toback wrote Karel Reisz’s “The Gambler” (1974), he has told stories about risk-taking obsessive types who get caught up in high adventure. “The Pick-Up Artist” is no exception, although it’s too thin to be satisfying. It consistently sparkles and moves along gracefully, but at a mere 81 minutes it leaves you unsatisfied. Although trimmed from an R to a PG-13, reportedly in light of the AIDS scare, you’re nevertheless left with the feeling that more than sex ended up on the cutting-room floor.

In any event, Ringwald is definitely grown up in this movie. Amusingly, however, neither Jack nor Randy is quite as independent as we’re led to believe. Although he’s not eager to admit it, the “older woman” Jack lives with is his lively grandmother (Mildred Dunnock). Randy lives with her trouble-prone father (Dennis Hopper), a likable but hugely reckless, hard-drinking gambler. There’s equally enjoyable support from Danny Aiello as a sweet, avuncular coffee shop proprietor, Harvey Keitel as a gangster who takes himself very seriously and Victoria Jackson as Keitel’s adorable but none-too-bright lady.


Cinematographer Gordon Willis makes Manhattan look sunnier than he does for Woody Allen, and “The Pick-Up Artist” makes colorful side trips to Coney Island and Atlantic City. The film also benefits from a highly contemporary score from the usually more romantic Georges Delerue. Although Ringwald is appealing in her directness, “The Pick-Up Artist” belongs to Downey, who moves from humor to seriousness with the greatest of ease in his first starring role. He’s sufficiently good-looking to be romantic but has the big eyes and upturned nose of an innate clown. He has a swift, off-the-wall quality that allows him to steal scenes, yet he can be convincingly serious when the situation demands. There’s no doubt Downey can carry a movie; it’s just that with “The Pick-Up Artist,” at least in its release cut, there’s too much that needs carrying.