MOVIE REVIEW : Laughs Smolder in 'Love at Stake'

The makers of "Love at Stake" (citywide)--a "wacky" comedy about the Salem witch trials--desire nothing more than to be Mel Brooks in the worst way. And if you can provide the punch line to that setup, it's a good bet you'll also be a step ahead of the film's predictable parade of Brooks-like flatulence humor, bestiality humor, et al.

It's a shame they stoop so, because at heart, they also want to be Brooks in the best way: the Brooks who tries to wreak a wicked satirical vengeance upon the more hypocritically sanctimonious, callous figures of history. In this case, the Puritans who cruelly sentenced innocent citizens to burn at the stake.

If this comedic correction comes a few hundred years too late, the telegraphing of the bluntly silly sight gags comes all too early. The fault for that lies not so much with director John Moffitt than with screenwriters Terry Sweeney and Lanier Laney.

In their scenario, the witch trials come about not through paranoia and mass hysteria but as a result of two greedy and lecherous politicos, Salem's mayor ("SCTV's" amusingly twitchy Dave Thomas) and judge (Stuart Pankin), conspiring to execute citizens in order to confiscate their land for a condo project. Among the falsely accused is gorgeous bakery-shop owner Sara Lee (Kelly Preston), who is framed by a genuine witch (Barbara Carrera).

With a new dumb gag run up the flagpole at a rate of every 15 seconds or so, the law of averages dictates that at least a few will be worth saluting in "Love at Stake" (MPAA-rated R).

As a straight-woman, Preston plays a virginal heroine better than most and fares best among the cast; normally watchable screen comedians like Bud Cort (doing a blind schtick as the sightless parson) and the late Anne Ramsey (who walks on at the end just long enough to call the townspeople "pinheads") are mostly wasted.

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