Dial M for Mushy

Cher spends the better part of Faithful, Paul Mazursky's new film, tied up in an office chair. As Maggie Connor, a rich, lonely wife kidnapped in her own house, she's almost like a quadriplegic, able to communicate only with her mouth and eyes. For an actress as exuberantly alive as Cher, the diminishment of expressive tools is brutal (her svelte, athletic body is just inert baggage), yet she's more than up to the challenge. She does as much with her eyes — shining and dark — as Meryl Streep did with hers in The Bridges of Madison County, and she wraps her voice all around her lines without recourse to funny accents.

The chair in which Maggie is imprisoned (it's on wheels, so she can be rolled around like cargo) is her own. She's sitting in it, at her desk, writing a suicide note, when a handsome thug named Tony (Chazz Palminteri) bursts in. He has jimmied the lock on one of the innumerable doors of her immeasurably vast mansion; he's no bush leaguer but a pro on a mission, and within moments he has got her bound and gagged, like a calf at a rodeo.

Tony doesn't notice the suicide note, nor the bottle of pills sitting next to it on the desktop — proof of Maggie's depressing alienation from Jack (Ryan O'Neal), her husband of 20 years — and he doesn't care. His job, for which Jack is paying him handsomely, is to kill Maggie and make it look like a rape and robbery. For both men, it's just business: Tony needs the money so as not to get whacked by some fellow wise guys; Jack needs both the $5 million from the life-insurance policy he's taken out on his wife and freedom to be with his new bimbo “assistant,” Debbie (Amber Smith).

Palminteri has adapted his own play for the screen, and the story, like its love-and-murder predecessors Sleuth and Deathtrap, sets up smoothly in its spacious new medium. If the triangle is the most stable of geometric figures, the love triangle must be the least stable of human arrangements; as the movie proceeds, it becomes less and less clear who's actually hired Tony, who's actually at risk, who wants whom out of the way.

One thing that does become clearer is the attraction between Maggie and her captor. As in the first part of The Crying Game, two people trapped together in a forced intimacy find it easier to expose their most vulnerable selves to one another when the usual social rules break down and masks of politeness are discarded. Maggie, in particular, has nothing to lose; whether she dies by suicide or at the hands of a hired hit man, she dies — and while she waits, she's unabashedly fascinated by Tony.

No wonder. Apart from being handsome (Palminteri's curiously curled upper lip has the allure of menace; it's the lip of a bad boy and a good kisser), he's openly tortured. He even has an analyst, Dr. Howard Susskind (played by Mazursky in an amusingly batty performance), with whom he discusses the psychological difficulties of his profession and the tragedy that took the life of his younger sister.

O'Neal, meantime, flutters only briefly through the movie's early scenes. With a helmet of shellacked hair and a preppy face turning to tanning-booth leather, he looks uncannily like William Shatner's loudmouthed TV cop, T.J. Hooker. But he lacks even Hooker's numskull courage; he's just a slippery bag of corporate sleaze for whom everything in life has come too easily.

Jack has arranged to leave New York for the day on business — his alibi. In that interval, Tony is supposed to break in, capture Maggie, and await Jack's signal: two rings of the telephone. Every time the telephone rings, Maggie's and Tony's hearts stop, but time after time the caller turns out to be Dr. Susskind, who strenuously opposes Tony's carrying out the assignment. (On the other hand, he seems to have no strong objections to Tony's hits on other mobsters.)

The movie has the sharp, twisting talkiness of a good play, and much of the talk is about being “faithful.” Is Jack being unfaithful with Debbie? Has Maggie ever been unfaithful to Jack? Has Tony ever been faithful to anyone? “Yeah,” he tells Maggie, “except for blow jobs. They don't count.” It's a funny — and utterly male — remark. It also suggests the extent to which Tony must deny or reshape reality. He's a hired killer who believes in God and love and marriage and being faithful to good girls, “in a way.” The daffy Dr. Susskind never utters the words “cognitive dissonance,” but surely that's what he's thinking about his lively patient. All those fault lines in Tony's conscience might not give him the most well-rounded personality, but they certainly make him grippingly unpredictable. From moment to moment he's coolly professional, anxious, furious, and seducibly tender.

Only toward the end of the picture does Jack return, in his snappy little Ferrari. He must believe that his wife is already dead, but he has a bottle of champagne for their anniversary anyway, and an expensive necklace. O'Neal does a fine job of muffling Jack's shock and bewilderment and carrying on with the celebration, as if he's actually happy to be with her. Then an angry Tony appears.

In the end the movie can't hide its sentimentality. Palminteri has given his three main characters distinct, idiosyncratic personalities, all of them in varying degrees likable despite their twistedness. But it's hard to see why Maggie would have anything to do with either one of them. Jack is a tired pretty boy, fearful of losing the looks that have already deserted him, and Tony is an operatic character who cannot clearly distinguish among desire, violence, and honor.

When the two men fall to blows in the dark, it's easy to picture Maggie standing in a window watching them, and hoping they do one another in. Instead Mazursky serves up something from “Wild America” — the stronger, nobler male running off his weaker rival. And claiming the desirable female. Will she have him? Will he be faithful? Chazz Palminteri's answers are easier than they ought to be.

Faithful opens Wed, April 3, at the Kabuki and the Plaza Twin in S.F., the UA Emery Bay in Oakland, and the Shattuck in Berkeley.

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