Old Formulas, New Variations

The Year of the Woman? In politics, maybe. In Hollywood, however, it's been the year of the demon woman. It started with Rebecca De Mornay's psycho nanny in "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," gathered steam with Kim Basinger's and Sharon Stone's very fatale femmes in "Final Analysis" and "Basic Instinct," and even infested the light comedy "Housesitter," in which Goldie Hawn seemed as unhinged as a horror-movie harpy. Now get ready for Jennifer Jason Leigh's Hedy Carlson, perhaps the most unnerving figure of the lot--a psychic invader whose creepiness is enhanced by her credibility.

In Barbet Schroeder's psychological thriller Single White Female, the frumpy, waiflike Hedy answers an ad for a roommate placed by chic Manhattan career woman Allie Jones (Bridget Fonda), a software consultant who discovers, on the verge of marriage, that her fiance has just slept with his ex-wife. Afraid of living alone in her cavernous Upper West Side apartment, she turns to a stranger for comfort. Hedy, desperate to be needed-and crazy as a bedbug-gloms onto Allie like a succubus, determined to complete her own unstable identity by appropriating Allies. It starts, innocently enough, when she begins wearing Allie's clothes. But before long there is nothing in Allie's life that she does not covet.

Adapted by Don Roos from a novel by John Lutz, Schroeder's anxiety-provoking, handsomely designed movie begins as an artful commingling of "Persona" and pulp. We expect, from the man who directed "Reversal of Fortune," a sophisticated approach to suspense, and Schroeder is deft at laying out the symbiotic relationship between these two oddly matched women. Leigh, a superb actress, draws her demonic character from the inside out, evoking some measure of pity as well as terror when her possessiveness turns deadly. But it' this point, when "Single White Female" moves into high horror gear, that dejea vu, and disappointment, set in. You can feel Schroeder succumbing to the pressure to cook up his chamber piece into a commercial blockbuster: the endlessly protracted climax is a lot closer to "Friday the 13th" than to Ingmar Bergman. "Single White Female" gives the viewers the adrenaline rush they paid for, but it promised more. The formula betrays the fine work of Leigh and Fonda, whose characters are much too interesting to find themselves stranded in a tony but ultimately tired slasher movie.

If Schroeder's movie takes its stylish time before it reveals its all-too-familiar face, Michael Ritchie's con-artist comedy revels in formula like a hog in a trough. In a nutshell, it's "The Sting" meets "Rocky." Just out of prison, scam artist James Woods descends on the corrupt rural community of Diggstown, where the unscrupulous bigwig Bruce Dern has made a fortune promoting boxing matches for cash bets. Setting out to con the con man, Woods borrows money from the mob to make an outrageous wager. He bets Dern that his fighter, a 48-year-old retired pro named "Honey" Roy Palmer (Lou Gossett Jr.), can whip not one but 10 of the best local opponents in a 24-hour period. The least of his problems is that Honey Roy hasn't yet agreed to the hustle. The fun is in figuring out how the old slugger can actually win these fights, only a few of which Woods can fix. Sloppy in its exposition, brazenly manipulative and shamelessly eager to please, "Diggstown" is not for connoisseurs of the subtle. But give credit where credit is due: Ritchie and screenwriter Steven McKay know how to turn their crowd-pleasing tricks. It's one sucker punch after another, but you'd have to be a rock not to fall for it.

This is another kind of crowd pleaser, of a vastly more genteel variety. Spurred by the guileless, dizzily optimistic Lottie (Josie Lawrence), who is eager to flee drizzly 1920s London and her oppressive marriage to a lawyer (Alfred Molina), four barely acquainted women rent a wisteria-shaded villa in Portofino for a month. Rose (Miranda Richardson) is a pious, repressed woman married to a philandering author (Jim Broadbent); Lady Caroline Dester (Polly Walker), a beautiful, bored socialite; and the impervious Mrs. Fisher (Joan Plowright) is a haughty dowager of impeccable literary pedigree. Almost immediately, the charm of the villa begins to exert a beneficent effect on its guests. Mike Newell's film, adapted by Peter Barnes from a 1922 novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, has been compared to the E. M. Forster Brits-in-Italy movies, but the resemblance is only superficial and geographic. It's something much softer and simpler: a fairy tale about a magic castle where everyone's wishes come true. Never have so many frozen hearts been so instantly melted. It's a tribute to Newell's seductive filmmaking, and to the delicious wit of the sterling cast, that this unlikely romantic idyll casts so potent a spell. A sweet pipe dream, "Enchanted April" won't bear much scrutiny; just bask in it indulgently like a spring sun.