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In the Spirit Reviews

In this flaky but engaging female buddy movie, the lives of three vastly different women (Marlo Thomas, Elaine May, and Jeannie Berlin--May's real-life daughter) intersect. Are they ruled by the stars or is it just coincidence that they meet? An advocate of New Age philosophies, healing crystals, and vegetarianism, New Yorker Reva Prosky (Thomas) is one of those pushy do-gooders who can't help "improving" the lifestyle of everyone she meets--including neighbor Crystal (Berlin), who's trying to leave prostitution for a career in bartending. Meanwhile, on the West Coast, the wealthy Roger (Peter Falk) and Marianne Flan (May) nervously endure his recent firing. After deciding to start anew in Manhattan, Marianne makes the fateful decision to allow Jill-of-all-trades Reva to redecorate her co-op apartment. After all, Reva has been recommended by a trusted friend, Sue (Olympia Dukakis), the sister-in-law of the widowed Reva. Disaster strikes when the renovation, guaranteed to last only a few days, drags out into a snafu-ridden six-month debacle. Persuaded to move in with the kooky Reva, Marianne has to contend with her depressed husband, whose futile job search has made him an ice cream addict. Marianne and Roger are slowly driven crazy by Reva's friends (believers in reincarnation, Shirley MacLaine groupies, and Crystal, the reforming hooker). One day, Crystal wanders in, expresses interest in a newspaper article on the Mafia, then leaves without her datebook. Shortly thereafter, she is found murdered in her apartment. At the same time, Roger leaves Marianne for his former wife. Angrily blaming Reva for all her woes, Marianne storms out and moves into her uninhabitable apartment. When both Marianne's and Reva's apartments are broken into, however, the two women begin to form a bond. Trying to figure out how the break-ins are related to Crystal's death, they decide that the killer wants Crystal's appointment book. In an attempt to break its code, the two visit prostitute Lureen (Melanie Griffith), a former associate of Crystal's. Still reeling from a recent attempt on their lives, Marianne and Reva are further horrified when Lureen is run down by a hit-and-run killer. Realizing that the police don't take them seriously and that their lives are in danger, the women grab some quick cash from Sue, who is reluctant to become involved, and hit the road as fugitives. Heading for a New Age retreat, they arm themselves, leaving a trail of credit card purchases for the murderer to follow. Peace-loving Reva plans to get the desperate killer before he can get them, but Marianne just wants to defend herself. At their hideout, Reva and Marianne grow closer as they rig booby traps and place the coveted datebook in an ice cooler that will electrocute anyone who grabs for the book. When the police manage to locate their whereabouts, the women realize a cop is the culprit; however, they suspect the wrong policeman. Later, after avoiding most of their traps, the killer corners Marianne and Reva, and confides that he would be tops on a Mafia hit list if the datebook were handed over to authorities. But when he sticks his hand in the ice chest, he's electrocuted. Not wanting any involvement with grand jury hearings about the Mafia, now-devoted pals Reva and Marianne concoct a story about the cop having a heart attack and face their husbandless futures together. For all its shortcomings, this raggedly amusing farce offers more laughs than most smoothly crafted Hollywood assembly line comedies. The basic problem with the script is its failure to follow through with its amusing premise and clever structure. After setting up a wonderful satire of the New Age set and framing it with telling narration, the film then abandons both and becomes a conventional buddy movie. The screenplay is chock-full of good ideas, but they tumble out helter skelter, and director Sandra Seacat (heretofore best known as the acting coach of such stars as Jessica Lange, Mickey Rourke, Faye Dunaway, and Michelle Pfieffer) isn't always able to milk them for maximum impact. We expect, for example, that Berlin's key character will reappear in the fanciful story line as a ghost and not just in flashbacks. Moreover, the scene in which Sue refuses to help the fleeing duo should have been infused with humor. Although the scene's point is to show that Reva and Marianne have only each other to rely on, there is no need to portray Sue as unfeeling. However, notwithstanding the numerous comic payoffs that might have been a little sharper, the film remains an irresistible exercise in silliness seemingly possessed by the spirit of the Marx Brothers or at least by that of their mother, Minnie. It's like a Mel Brooks movie without the crudity. In the tradition of other uneven wacky comedies like BIG TROUBLE and FINDERS KEEPERS, the strength of IN THE SPIRIT lies in rich comic material that recalls the glory days of revue humor and performers like Barbara Harris and Alan Arkin, who were trained in the improvisational style that enhances this film. Berlin (who cowrote the screenplay) isn't onscreen long enough, but Thomas makes a bewitching straight woman. And Falk and May are sidesplittingly funny; everything they do is so on target you laugh as if you're seeing their shtick for the first time. In fact, May's performance as the downwardly mobile executive's wife is one of the most outrageously funny exhibitions of comic acting in years. Because of the script's adventurousness and the cast's sparkle, IN THE SPIRIT emerges as an off-the-wall surprise. If reincarnation is a reality, then it's just possible that the spirit of screwball comedy lives again in IN THE SPIRIT. (Violence, sexual situations, profanity.)