TV Reviews : Stories of Men, Women and Love Return to HBO

Years ago, before television, you could go to the movies and see three or four collected short stories adapted from somebody famous like Somerset Maugham. It was the original omnibus format, and it was a lot of fun. Now that genre has returned, in this case on cable, in the classy triple-headed "Women and Men: In Love There Are No Rules," on HBO Sunday at 9 p.m.

It's the kind of program that makes TV seem fresh again, with three half-hour stories adapted from celebrated American authors (Carson McCullers, Henry Miller and Irwin Shaw), cast with stellar movie names (Matt Dillon and Scott Glenn, among others) and assembled by some estimable filmmakers (David Brown, Jonathan Demme and Walter Bernstein).

At the core of each segment is the complexity of women and men in love, where indeed rules don't apply. What's applicable is the quietly affecting heartbeats in all three pieces. Nobody beats up on anybody else; there's no melodrama, no abusive lovers. But there's lots of sexual chemistry in two of these segments, and love and squalor populate each story.

Best of the trio is the concluding "Mara," inspired by Miller's Paris days. It's centered on a tenderly-charged, unconsummated late-night encounter between two lost souls, a floundering American writer (Glenn) and a Parisian prostitute (Juliette Binoche). Unlike the companion works, this segment, adapted and directed by Mike Figgis, is cinematically luminous, catching an updated Paris with a bright, wet sheen, and it's structurally artful and complete.

Viewers may feel left hanging by the abrupt endings of the other two stories. In them, the domestic dramas are left unresolved, but it is the ambiguity of life that's observed here--the probabilities, not the answers. You may write your own ending. That's one reason this production makes television seem new again.

Dillon is terrific as an up-and-coming 1939 boxer in Shaw's "Return to Kansas City." Adapter-director Bernstein immediately drops you into the sweat of the ring, in a jolting club bout featuring Dillon and a pug played by Mike Tyson's former trainer, Kevin Rooney. Dillon's bigger battle comes later, at home, with his impatient wife, the feverish, homesick Kyra Sedgwick. Their mutual attraction is a casting gem.

The terror of booze haunts McCullers' "A Domestic Dilemma." Yet the out-of-control drinking of a suburban housewife (Andie MacDowell) is treated with unusual compassion by her husband (Ray Liotta, the young gangster of "GoodFellas" fame). Kristi Zea makes a polished directorial debut from a script by Robert Breslo.

It's not easy to cover this much emotional turf in brief, half-hour formats, but the production is emblematic of economy, almost a lost art. The first "Women and Men" premiered last summer with stories adapted from Ernest Hemingway, Mary McCarthy and Dorothy Parker. The latest trio will be repeated on HBO Thursday and Aug. 27 and 29.

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