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Hustles, Farces And Fantasies

White Men Can't Jump. But they can make very entertaining movies, especially if the white man in question is writer/director Ron Shelton, creator of the wonderful "Bull Durham." His new comedy, with Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson as a couple of L.A. basketball hustlers whose partnership does not exclude hustling each other, has a fairly perfunctory plot (tension is supplied by two thugs trying to collect Harrelson's debts). But Shelton's strength is character, streetwise wit and funky, lived-in sexuality. Snipes, one of our most versatile young actors, gets to demonstrate his wonderful comic chops, and Harrelson, whose goofiness is part of his scam, partners him beautifully. Sweet and tangy Rosie Perez almost steals the show as the white boy's tippling girlfriend, who amasses an amazing almanac of facts in anticipation of winning a bundle on "Jeopardy!" Propelled by a hip, soulful soundtrack, packed with fast basketball action and fresh glimpses of an L.A. far off the 90210 map, "White Men Can't Jump" is a minor-league movie that spins off major-league pleasures. It's a kind of pickup game itself, running on competitive energy-between men and women, black and white, player and player. It may not, finally, add up to much-Shelton's more concerned with inside moves and flashy passes-but when it's cooking it gives off a fine adrenaline high.

People seeing Peter Bogdanovich's version of Michael Frayn's clockwork farce might find it hard to believe that the Broadway show, under Michael Blakemore's direction, was twice as funny as the movie. It was. But the movie happens to be twice as funny as anything else around. Frayn's fiendishly clever concoction is both a sendup of bedroom farce and its apotheosis. The first act shows you the rehearsal of a pathetic British farce performed by a disasterprone troupe of actors; the second gives you the backstage view of the action, which is even more convoluted than the play itself. A Rube Goldberg contraption that self-destructs with awesome comic precision, "Noises Off " unavoidably loses some of its brilliance on film: much of the fun was the suspense of seeing live actors survive the daredevil demands of the slapstick. Still, Bogdanovich's frenetic transplant-Americanized by writer Marty Kaplan-supplies so many belly laughs it seems ill-spirited to complain. The big, hardworking cast includes Michael Caine as the show's beleaguered director, and Carol Burnett, Christopher Reeve, John Ritter, Marilu Henner, Denholm Elliott and Nicollette Sheridan as the bedraggled players. No farce lover should miss it.

Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael makes his dazzlingly inventive debut with this intricately constructed tale of an old man, Thomas (Michel Bouquet), reliving a life he feels was stolen from him. Convinced, against reason, that he was switched at birth with a rich neighbor's child, he's bent on last-minute revenge, and his mind wanders back to his turbulent childhood, his blighted romance with a woman who seems the reincarnation of his beloved sister and into the fantasy world of his alter ego, Toto the secret agent. Though the tale is streaked with tragedy, what comes through most strongly is the filmmaker's exuberance in the face of life's absurdity. This glittering mosaic is strongest in its evocation of the magical universe of childhood, weakest in its adult psychology. In toto, there may be less here than meets the eye, but what a show for the eyes it is. Van Dormael gives great surface.

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