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MOVIE REVIEW : Catching Up With ‘Three Men’ : The sequel to the 1987 hit ‘Three Men and a Baby’ tries hard to be a cute farce but falls on its face for lack of a plot.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“Three Men and a Little Lady” (citywide) plays less like a comedy than an evening gone wrong. It’s like a posh party where the high-profile guests, Tom Selleck, Steve Guttenberg and Ted Danson, show up, dragging along memories of their joint 1987 hit, “Three Men and a Baby,” but no one figures out anything amusing for them to do.

It’s obvious what’s on everybody’s mind: They want a hit-by-association. But the plot shrivels up and goes daffy. The evening drags on, just like the failed bachelor bash that director Emile Ardolino stages halfway through. Pretty soon, it’s gotten so deadly, everybody is sitting around talking about relationships or cracking smutty jokes--discreetly, so the children won’t be offended.

“Three Men and a Baby” was like a comic PG rapprochement with the sexual revolution, a pay-back fantasy for post-'60s singles and families alike. A cutesy farce about three swinging Manhattan bachelors--suddenly saddled with an abandoned infant and forced to cope with the daddyhood they’d avoided--it was only a pale echo of the movie from which it was lifted, “Trois Hommes et un Couffin.” The Cesar-winning French farce was really only a pastel murmur itself, but it had a certain symbolic force.

It also had a major flaw, which all but sinks the sequel. Coline Serreau, who wrote and directed the original, knew her bachelors. At the end of “Trois Hommes,” she kept them friendly but noncommittal. But the male writers of “Three Men and a Baby” went further, inviting mother and tot to move in with the threesome.

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If there was a preposterous undercurrent to “Baby” this movie bumbles far past it. Why would a highly successful Manhattan architect (Selleck), a nationally syndicated cartoonist (Guttenberg) and a failed actor (Danson) all be quartered together in the first place?

Five years later, they’re all still housemates: Mom, little lady and the lovable bachelor buddies. They’ve even moved into a more spacious, homier brownstone. But their lives haven’t changed. No one is married; all amours are conducted outside the house--and the movie.

In a lifetime of looking at silly movies, I’ve seen few premises sillier than this. Even the living arrangements of the Three Stooges or the Three Mesquiteers make more sense. The first “Three Men” set up a tension between real-life urban sexuality, even in the AIDS era, and the pulls of family life. This one takes place in some PG sitcom, high-concept, cloud-cuckoo-land.

The movie’s patina of sophistication makes it seem even sillier. With its perfunctory jokes buried in an impeccably bright and lush production, this is the kind of show that can put audiences, and maybe actors, in a daze.

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Oddly, “Three Men and a Little Lady” isn’t even about the relationship between the three men and their little lady (Robin Weisman). It’s about the sex-hostility five-years-deferred romance between Selleck’s Peter and Nancy Travis’ Sylvia--now swept off her feet by a snobbish Englishman, who doesn’t like children.

At the end, someone at this pooped party has a half-bright idea. Why not go to England and turn the whole movie into a fey, dotsy-whimsy British manor comedy, complete with fuddling vicars, garden parties, voracious spinster schoolteachers and senile butlers who wander around without their pants on? It’s not exactly an inspired solution. But nothing else here is inspired either, except for supporting actress Fiona Shaw.

Fine performances in movies that work well deserve applause. Maybe Shaw’s work here, as love-maddened Miss Lomax, is even more impressive. For five or 10 minutes, aided by Ardolino’s dance-like staging and Selleck’s deft, low-key reactions, she turns this complacent, flat, shimmeringly well-dressed dud of a movie into something close to high-style comedy. Her eyes gleam with herky-jerky patrician lust; her hands rove caressingly over her own collarbone; improbable arousal erupts with a vengeance.

Other than Shaw’s turn, which gets dampened in the determinedly frolicsome finale, there’s little to like in “Three Men and a Little Lady” (MPAA-rated PG, despite language and innuendo). Selleck is charming. Danson, aided by latex and a Carmen Miranda outfit, has two funny scenes. Travis has a lovely smile, which she overuses.

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Adam Greenberg is back to light the sets in sugary splendor, though unfortunately, designer Peter Larkin isn’t back to dress them. His spectacular “Baby” bachelor pad, has been deserted for the brownstone. And that’s not a place we’d like to return to, unless it were brightened up with a script worthy of Fiona Shaw.


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