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MOVIE REVIEW : The Subtle Pleasures of ‘The Rachel Papers’

Times Staff Writer

Charlie Highway, the irrepressible hero of the slight, bittersweet romantic comedy “The Rachel Papers” (at the Westside Pavilion), is nothing if not tenacious. In his pursuit of girls he plans his strategies on his computer, which contains not only dating tips and detailed data on the objects of his desire but even a list of poems suitable for every occasion.

As the nearly 20-year-old Charlie, British actor Dexter Fletcher is a diminutive, unhandsome guy who looks more like a debauched 13, complete with circles under his eyes, a cross between Mick Jagger and Oscar Levant in their adolescence. But Fletcher’s Charlie has personality, wit and energy. He persuades us that when he peers into a mirror clad only in boxer shorts, he believes himself when he says, “Not bad, I’m telling you.” Charlie, however, proves to be surprisingly vulnerable beneath the brash surface, especially when he zeroes in on the stunning Rachel (Ione Skye), a brunette American beauty with porcelain skin and lips that actually might be described as being like cherries.

Based on the 1973 Martin Amis novel and written and directed by Damian Harris in his feature debut, “The Rachel Papers” is one of the most durable of screen fantasies: the physically unprepossessing guy goes after the breathtakingly gorgeous girl. While not especially distinctive, the film is pleasant and amusing. It has a brisk, well-turned-out quality that augurs well for Harris, the son of Richard Harris. Helping set and maintain the film’s smart tone is Chaz Jankel and David Storrs’ deft, trendy score.

You may find yourself having to take it on faith that Rachel could possibly find Charlie attractive. In any event, Fletcher and Skye (well-remembered from “Say Anything” and “A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon”) are charmingly adroit actors. As Rachel, Skye must confirm that age-old male belief that women are inevitably mysterious and unpredictable. Where she shines, however, is in making this goddess human, something for which Charlie is not at all prepared and which is really the heart of the matter.

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Setting things in motion for Charlie and Rachel is James Spader as Rachel’s regular fellow, another American living in London. How wonderfully sly Spader is and what pleasure he takes in acting! On the surface, he’s quite the opposite kind of man he plays in “sex, lies, and videotape,” yet Spader finds the deviousness in both characters and revels in it. Here he’s like every superficially polished, obnoxious star fraternity man you ever met, the kind whose unshakable confidence is based on the firm conviction he’s another Robert Redford. Spader’s role is small but crucial, and he’s a delight. So is Bill Paterson as Charlie’s shaggy, outrageous, superannuated hippie brother-in-law.

“The Rachel Papers” (rated R for some discreet sex and nudity and some four-letter words) is minor but it offers some genuine pleasures.


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