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MOVIE REVIEW : The Split-Level Fantasy of ‘Chances Are’

“Chances Are” (citywide), a comedy about reincarnation, is a winsomely likable movie, the cinematic equivalent of the fuzzy penguins that department stores snare their customers with during Christmas. Can you resist it? Should you?

Set in Washington, it’s about a young (non-sexual) Kennedy-era menage-a-trois, split apart when the husband dies in an accident, reunited years later when he comes back in a new body: as a young journalist stumbling over his past-life doodads (all mysteriously unmoved in two decades) and falling for his past-life wife, now his girlfriend’s mother.

The two survivors--Smithsonian curator Corinne Jeffries (Cybill Shepherd) and reporter Philip Train, (Ryan O’Neal)--have both been celibate for more than two decades, not the least of the movie’s amazements. (She moons over her dead love, he over her.) And their reincarnated interloper, Alex Finch (Robert Downey, Jr.) is an impish young opportunist who doesn’t at all suggest Corinne’s gentle, idealistic husband.

“Chances Are” works out of a lot of new spiritualist fantasies, mixed up with ’40’s Hollywood heavenly comedy conventions. And it splits into two levels. Are we watching a bawdy comedy about a dissolute little snake who tries to seduce his girlfriend’s mother? Or is it true love transmogrified, with an Alex so chaste that he rejects passes from Louie’s daughter Miranda (Mary Stuart Masterson) because he’s chary of incest?

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The plot suggests that beneath an apparently sordid, opportunistic, sex-crazed surface, there’s something eternal and noble. It’s like all those early ‘60s sex comedies, where the characters appeared to be engaging in assignations that really weren’t happening--but with a new ‘80s perspective full of fixation on success and appearances and tricky rationalization.

There’s also a political parable of sorts, with Corinne and Philip as refugees from the dead, glorious Camelot years, now somehow frozen and suspended, and Alex and Miranda--the modern, nervy, hard-driving, good-time kid and his post-liberation ingenue-- heirs of the Camelot legacy, completing the tasks of the past: including exposing a corrupt judge.

It’s a shame the movie isn’t more dirty-minded, because, if it were, Robert Downey Jr. could probably be sensational. Downey has a lascivious smirk, desperate eyes and a face that seems oily with innuendo; there’s something almost Fitzgeraldian about the hints of youthful decay he can give off. (The perfect role for him was the dissolute young writer Michael J. Fox played in “Bright Lights, Big City,” and, ironically, Alex Finch looks like a part written with Fox in mind, too). Downey is erratic here, but he could probably go much farther than the movie does, play a character who isn’t sure whether he’s cad or angelic lover, creep-hustler or romantic--and carry the audience right with him.

Director Emile Ardolino (“Dirty Dancing”) helps give “Chances Are” that soft, smooth, upscale sheen. Watching it is like sinking into an expensive settee, with some sort of light, pleasantly buzzy drone filling your ears. Is that drone the dialogue? The writers here, sisters Perry and Randy Howze (“Mystic Pizza”) have a knack for mining over-familiar “Golden Age” movie genres, but their ideas are much better than their embellishments.

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The talk and plot twists both have a flavorless, perfunctory quality. Are we supposed to admire Corinne for coming up with the absurd Hollywood Wax Museum display of American First Ladies she’s curating? Laugh at Alex for dancing a lewd society matron into a medical collapse? How can we accept a scene, any scene, where Downey Jr. beats up Ryan O’Neal?

The movie is well-structured but slackly developed. And there’s something almost Robin Leach-ish about the Howzes failing to invent a fictional news editor and coming up instead with an actor (Henderson Forsythe) as the Washington Post’s real life Ben Bradlee: Bradlee softened into a fairy godfather of journalism.

“Chances Are” (MPAA rated PG, despite much innuendo) is excellent in its setups, weak in its delivery, though Downey is such a propulsive actor, he carries a lot of it along. Chances are some of you will like it, some of you won’t. The true spirit of the ‘40s idealistic fantasy comedy remains unreincarnated.


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