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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Happy’ Echoes ‘30s Comedy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Happy Together” (selected theaters) has the smarts to take a clever idea and run with it. Serious-minded would-be playwright Chris (Patrick Dempsey) and blithe-spirited aspiring actress Alex (Helen Slater), because of her unisex name, wind up as freshman roommates in a university dorm. The result is “The Odd Couple” turned into a brisk and bubbly romantic comedy.

Writer Craig J. Nevius has written wonderful roles for Dempsey and Slater, two of the most attractive, talented young actors on the screen today, and they in turn come through with some of their best work yet under Mel Damski’s shrewd, deft direction. “Happy Together” is a pleasure in the tradition of ‘30s screwball comedy--a genre many attempt but few succeed with--in which fantastic situations evoke genuine emotion.

Slater is a delight as she takes on the time-honored task of making a certified pain-in-the-neck irresistible. Having settled in before Chris arrives, the mercurial Alex has transformed their room into cluttered pastel paradise with a plastic water tub in the center of the room. Her extroverted personality and whimsical ways drive Chris nuts, yet in the three weeks it takes him to arrange a room transfer he’s ready to cancel it.

Therein lies the persuasive charm of the film. Within that period Chris begins to understand that he’s a stick figure--that, as his drama professor (Marius Weyers) points out, he can’t write unless he’s lived--and that Slater’s flamboyance masks the vulnerability of an unloved child, the product of a broken marriage. (According to Alex, her rich father ranks his Mercedes before her.) At the same time, it starts to dawn upon Alex that she might do well to take both her studies and Alex more seriously.

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Weyers, who starred in “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” gives the film dimension, as does Barbara Babcock, entirely believable as Chris and Alex’s rigorous acting teacher, who attempts to break through Alex’s superficiality as an actress. Dan Schneider shines as Chris’s bright, eccentric pal, and Kevin Hardesty is amusing as Alex’s rocker fiance. “Happy Together” (rated PG-13) is modest, unpretentious--and surprisingly touching underneath the giddiness.


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