MOVIE REVIEWS : No Lessons in 'Big Girls'

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Joan Micklin Silver is a director of feeling and taste, with a gift for ensemble comedies: quietly realistic films like "Hester Street" or warmly romantic ones like "Crossing Delancey."

So, why is she making movies like "Big Girls Don't Cry . . . They Get Even," a silly, overfrenetic chase comedy about a huge family, full of cheap L.A. jokes, programmed warmth, slick little life lessons and improbable twists?

You can almost tell from the title that something is wrong. It sounds like an ad campaign designed by committee. And so, in a way, does the script--though it's actually the work of one writer, Frank Mugavero, following a treatment by executive producer Melissa Goddard and her father.

Goddard's notion has promise. She wants to draw out the humor of today's extended upper-middle-class families, with their multidivorced mothers and fathers and constantly shifting households. But the plot of "Big Girls"(at selected theaters), though trickier than usual, has no real depth. Even its setup has a near high-concept ring: 12-year-old narrator Laura (Hillary Jocelyn Wolf) has three separate "families," and, when she runs away, they're all drawn together at a paradisiacal forest-lake resort.

A brainy outsider, Laura is alienated from her latest family, an all-cliche group composed of fashion-plate mom (Margaret Whitton), rich, preoccupied stepdad (David Strathairn) and assorted siblings and stepsiblings: rebel Josh (Dan Futterman), teen narcissist Corrine (Jenny Lewis), Rambo-macho fat-boy Kurt (Trenton Tiegen) and computer-whiz Sam (Ben Savage).

Her biological dad, David, a philandering painter, is played by that combination Dustin Hoffman-Dudley Moore of the independent American movie: Griffin Dunne. David has a new girlfriend, flirty muse Stephanie (Adrienne Shelley), after foolishly shucking his earth-mother second wife Barbara (Patricia Kalember) and their love-me, hug-me tot Emma (charming little Jessica Seeley).

Almost the best thing about "Big Girls" is the first five minutes, where Laura explicates these complex familial tangles with the help of some home movies and videos. It creates the impression that we're going to see something satisfyingly dense, urbane and witty. But screenwriter Mugavero's jokes are all on a sub-talk-show level. At one point, he actually has a scene where a family in a camper sings "The Brady Bunch" theme, and the convolutions whereby he pins everyone around Josh's lakeside log cabin while hustling off Laura on a round of "Bonnie and Clyde" misadventures has to be seen to be disbelieved.

There's no conviction in "Big Girls." It's just sharp and zingy, in the manner you'd expect from the average high-budget studio comedy: all those vacuous formula stories that helped create the '80s audience for independent movies in the first place.

Silver doesn't acquit herself dishonorably. There's a nice warm sheen to the decor and cinematography (by Theo van de Sande of "The Assault"). Everyone in the cast--especially Whitton, Wolf and Lewis--is good.

And perhaps you could single out Adrienne Shelley, the angle-faced redhead lead of Hal Hartley's "Trust" and "The Unbelievable Truth." Saddled with few good lines and a thankless part--a sort of gorgeous sub-Bohemian air-head--Shelley shows a remarkable, almost radiant screen presence, and a seemingly unerring comic sense. She also delivers one of the greatest farewell winks in years.

Silver's talent is precisely to catch these little moments, to draw us into the humanity of her films. That's what her actors sometimes get in "Big Girls Don't Cry . . . They Get Even" (MPAA-rated PG), but they're fighting uphill all the way.

There's something self-satisfied and enclosed about this little L.A. world of croissants and high tech. It begins as satiric attack, ends as self-congratulatory mush, and coughs up the unlikely lesson that all a disconnected, selfish upscale family needs to get together is one runaway and a couple of days in the woods. That's not a life lesson; it's just another ad slogan.

'Big Girls Don't Cry

. . . They Get Even'

Hillary Wolf: Laura Chartoff

David Strathairn: Keith

Margaret Whitton; Melinda

Griffin Dunne; David

A New Line Cinema production and release. Director Joan Micklin Silver. Producers Laurie Perlman, Gerald T. Olson. Executive producers Peter Morgan, Melissa Goddard. Screenplay by Frank Mugavero. Cinematographer Theo Van de Sande. Editor Janice Hampton. Costumes Jane Ruhm. Music Patrick Williams. Production design Victoria Paul. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG.

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