'Living Out Loud' is a humorous but convoluted film

by Amelia Arsenault | 11/9/98 6:00am

"Living Out Loud" is the ambitious, if deeply flawed, directorial debut of screenwriter Robert LaGravenese. Over the past 10 years, LaGravenese has accumulated an impressive, if variegated, collection of screen credits to his name, such as "The Fisher King," "The Mirror Has Two Faces," "The Bridges of Madison County" and, more recently, "The Horse Whisperer" and "Beloved."

To give LaGravenese credit, in "Living Out Loud" he attempts to avoid the typical pratfalls of an urban romance comedy.

He keeps the audience guessing by weaving fantasy and hallucinatory scenes into an already unpredictable plotline about two decidedly ambiguous protagonists. However, the film remains convoluted and episodic.

Danny DeVito plays the dumpy, sad and diminutive elevator attendant Pat Francato. After his daughter dies and his wife of twenty-six years divorces him, he moves in with his brother and works the night shift at a ritzy Upper East side co-op to pay off his hefty gambling debts.

Life is bleak for Pat until co-op resident Judith Nelson (Holly Hunter), a down and out forty-something nurse, steps into his elevator. Her slimy husband (Martin Donovan) has recently kicked her to the curb for a younger women, and now she is alone and friendless.

Judith is repressed, uptight and terrified of life on her own. LaGravenese punctuates her paranoia with visual depictions of her hallucinations and voice-overs of her rambling and quite funny interior monologues about everything from crack babies to her co-op neighbors.

Pat and Judith's friendship progresses slowly. Judith begins frequenting a jazz bar in Harlem, where she meets a random man on her way to the bathroom who she believes will save her from her solitary existence.

The mystery man promises to meet her the next weekend in the same club. When he doesn't show up, Judith gets raucously drunk and befriends the resident club singe, and her idol, Liz Bailey (Queen Latifah).

The film progresses from there. I don't want to give away too much of the plot.

But with a little help from Liz, Pat, a male hooker, recreational drug-use and about fifty martinis Judith gradually begins to open up and, well, live out loud. Judith encourages Pat to do the same.

One of the main problems with the movie is that there is no clear decision about whose story this is. LaGravenese carefully develops Pat and Judith's friendship for the first half of the movie.

He balances Judith's sexual frustrations and general wet-blanketness with Pat's quest to settle his gambling debts and find success and love. But about half way through the movie Pat's story fades into the background.

There are a number of funny moments in the film such as when Judith throws corn muffins at her ex-husband during a real-estate meeting or when she starts rubbing Pat's bald head after taking ecstasy.

Queen Latifah is marvelous as Liz Bailey. She is strong willed and flamboyant yet vulnerable as she tells Judith she is in love with a gay man. The only flaw with her role is its brevity.

Danny DeVito also turns in a strong performance. DeVito's Pat is both a sympathetic and complex character when, with all his problems, he could have easily become annoying.

Surprisingly, Holly Hunter who won an Academy Award for "The Piano," turns in the weakest performance.

In short, Hunter overacts. She is perpetually wide-eyed and speaks in a bizarre almost otherworldly voice. Her surreal interpretation of Judith is severely out of step with the rest of the cast.

LaGrevenese attempts to tell a quasi-feminist and sophisticated story about two quirky adults trying to come to grips with life after divorce. However, the film frequently delves into schmaltz.

When Judith literally hugs her inner-child on the floor of a lesbian dance club after joining in some sort of bizarrely choreographed dance routine with random women, the film really lost me. But maybe I'm just too young to understand.

The film does have many strong points, Queen Latifah for one. The dialogue is often fresh and snappy, and the characters are unique and interesting in their own way. But, the film lacks cohesion and many dimensions of the story remain underdeveloped.