Celebrate The Unexpected

People are always ragging on Hollywood for not being serious, for not tackling the difficult issues of our times. But look at the holiday movies, from "JFK" and "Grand Canyon" to "For the Boys" and "The Prince of Tides": like 'em or not, they've all got earnestness to spare. No, the real scandal of the so-called "entertainment industry" is how seldom it simply entertains anymore. When was the last time a movie left you sated with delight? OK--"Beauty and the Beast." Now try to name four other 1991 movies that qualify as captivating light entertainment.

Genuine escapism may be the true lost art of movies, which is all the more reason to celebrate the unexpected charm of the English/Irish comedy Hear My Song, a movie that cost less than a tenth of "Hook's" budget, and is easily 10 times as much fun. The not entirely upright hero of this larkish tall tale is Micky O'Neill (Adrian Dunbar), the proprietor of a Liverpool nightclub that caters to the local Irish population. Micky is about to be evicted, having duped his audience one too many times by booking misleading acts like Franc Sinatra, a sad excuse for Ole Blue Eyes. Now he sees an opportunity for rescue: he books a certain Mr. X. (William Hootkins), a mystery man who claims to be Josef Locke, the legendary Irish tenor who has not sung in England for 25 years since fleeing a charge

His salvation turns out a disaster. The tenacious police chief (David McCallum), long on Locke's trail, declares Mr. X an imposter. What's worse, the incident destroys his romance with his fiancee, Nancy (Tara Fitzgerald). Nancy's mother (Shirley-Anne Field), a former beauty queen, was Locke's lover in 1958 when he fled the country and broke her heart--and when she hopefully re-encounters Mr. X, she's sexually humiliated.

There's only one way for Micky to salvage both his nightclub and his relationship with Nancy-he'll go to Ireland, find the real Josef Locke (Ned Beatty) and somehow bring him back to Liverpool to sing. Just how he pulls this feat off is the meat of "Hear My Song's" plot, which zigzags deftly between farce and sentiment, reality and whimsy.

First-time director Peter Chelsom, who wrote the script with leading man Dunbar, has taken a kernel of fact (Locke was a real man, who settled his tax problems after nine years) and spun it into a beguiling fable about a young man who has to prove his love, and an older man, Jo Locke, who helps him in order to make amends for his own broken promises. Chelsom's tale stretches our credibility at times, but never breaks it: we accept the high-spirited blarney in the proper romantic spirit. Warm but never cloying, sentimental without denying the complexity of its characters, "Hear My Song" has some of the spirit of the old Ealing comedies of the '40s and '50s, and some of the sideways charm of Bill ("Local Hero") Forsyth. Chelsom's first effort may lack Forsyth's subtlety (he's picked up a few "cute" bad habits from his work in commercials) but there's real feeling beneath his comic facility. The cast is sterling, and Beatty's robust performance the plum in the pudding. No movie around will leave you with a wider smile.

Photo: Trying to salvage his romance: Fitzgerald, Dunbar (TOM COLLINS)

Ernest R. Dickerson, the fine cinematographer of Spike Lee's films, makes his directorial debut with Juice, a familiar Harlem street story about an aspiring deejay (Omar Epps) lured into a robbery by his friends, and dealing with the lethal consequences when a buddy (Tupac Shakur) turns psychotic. Poised halfway between the action conventions of "New Jack City" and the personal grit of "Straight Out of Brooklyn," "Juice" doesn't have the pizzaz or the insight, to satisfy as either exploitation or art. Dickerson and his fresh young cast make it move; it just doesn't move very far.