`Slugger's Wife': a refreshing if shallow Neil Simon comedy-drama

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Neil Simon's latest movie, ``The Slugger's Wife,'' is a one-joke comedy-drama about a baseball star who can't hit when his bride isn't there to cheer him on -- which happens a lot, since she's an independent woman with dreams and ambitions of her own. It's refreshing to find a new film about real, grown-up people with real, grown-up problems. The slugger and his spouse aren't just sex-hungry teens like the heroes of so many current pictures. They're adults with long-term aspirations as well as spur-of-the-moment needs.

The movie doesn't explore them in depth, though, and Simon fails to discover what makes them tick, even in comic terms. While he sympathizes with their problems and predicaments, his eye is mainly on the number of wisecracks and sentimental slogans he can milk from them. The result is likable but thin.

Ditto for the colorless acting of Michael O'Keefe, who plays the slugger with a plodding zeal that doesn't match his gung-ho character. Rebecca de Mornay fares better, giving offbeat energy to the wife, a would-be singer who's determined to find her own niche in the world. Film director Martin Ritt does a nice turn as the slugger's coach; Cleavant Derricks does the same as a pal; and the inimitable Randy Quaid steals scenes as if they were bases.

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The most interesting aspect of ``The Slugger's Wife,'' all told, is the crazy tension between Neil Simon's screenplay and Hal Ashby's filmmaking. Simon is a conservative writer who relies on neatly constructed scenes and diligently honed dialogues. Ashby is an anything-goes visual stylist who likes to charge ahead regardless of details like time, place, and conventional continuity.

So the characters in ``The Slugger's Wife'' speak their Simonized lines earnestly and correctly while Ashby's camera work and editing tricks do spacey pirouettes all around them, throbbing to the beat of a rock score that has a life and mind all its own. It's not a winning combination, but it's lively -- which is more than I can say for the slugger.

The picture is rated PG-13, reflecting some vulgar language and a comic sex scene.

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