Offbeat `Prizzi's Honor' serves up cynicism with a smile

At the movies, the only bright spots of this disappointing year have been comedies. First came ``Lost in America'' and then ``The Purple Rose of Cairo.'' Now we have ``Prizzi's Honor,'' the darkest and dourest of the lot, if not the funniest. Put into words, the plot sounds like a rowdy farce. A hit man falls in love with a hit woman. Both are mixed up in shady deals and double-crosses, which interweave so crazily that a Mafia godfather would have trouble figuring them out. Love and death become sides of the same coin: ``Do I ice her or do I marry her?'' is the hero's big question at one point. Ultimately the husband and wife find themselves with contracts to kill each other, and their personalities are so weird it's impossible to predict what they'll do.

This material could have made a knockabout comedy in the screwball tradition of the '30s and '40s, but director John Huston takes a different tack. With a straight face and a steady hand, he gives the story a leisurely pace and elegant look -- letting the humor emerge in its own good time, as if he didn't know it was there at all.

This is a risky approach, going against the grain of nearly all recent comedies, which sock their jokes across with aggressive zeal. Compared with the competition, ``Prizzi's Honor'' seems muted and hesitant at times. But it's a pleasure to watch artists like Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner develop their roles deliberately and expansively, savoring each line and gesture for its own sake. While the movie's slow momentum may take you by surprise, it pays off with wry moods and sly characterizations of a kind you won't find anywhere else.

Credit for the offbeat virtues of ``Prizzi's Honor'' goes to many collaborators. The most obvious ones are the stars, both in peak form. After pushing too hard in ``Terms of Endearment'' last year, Nicholson finds just the right combination of ignorance and arrogance -- mirrored by bulgy eyes and a perpetually puckered mouth -- for his dopey ``Prizzi'' character; and Turner gives further evidence that she can handle just about any comic or dramatic challenge.

Behind the scenes, Richard Condon and Janet Roach wrote the cheerfully cynical screenplay, which recalls (more gently) the grim humor of ``Winter Kills,'' another unsettling comedy based on a Condon novel. Andrzej Bartkowiak contributed the flowing camera work. But the most decisive hand is that of director Huston, who has shaped the action into eloquent visual paragraphs that have more in common with his own last picture, ``Under the Volcano,'' than with anything else on today's quick-cutting, eye-blitzing movie scene.

This said, I must add that I have more reservations about ``Prizzi's Honor'' than many critics do. While some supporting performances are strong -- those of John Randolph and Robert Loggia among them -- others are too keyed up for the movie's overall tone. The important role of a Mafia don is played too cartoonishly by William Hickey, and Anjelica Huston verges on self-parody as she slinks around Brooklyn in a Vampira get-up. Huston falls back on trite storytelling devices, linking episodes in the laziest way. The screenplay finds few perspectives on its main theme -- the way blind ideas of ``honor'' and ``family'' can lead to chaos and tragedy -- that weren't explored years ago in continental comedies like ``The Conjugal Bed'' and ``Divorce, Italian Style.''

Since these flaws are peppered through its two-hour-plus length, why has ``Prizzi's Honor'' knocked some reviewers for a loop? By the simple trick of being more grown-up than almost anything else around. Like other adults, movie critics are starved for on-screen maturity, and may jump too eagerly when they stumble on some.

I don't mean to be negative. I applaud ``Prizzi's Honor'' for its best qualities -- its wit, its insinuating rhythm, its sardonic performances. It also makes a more stinging comment on the profit motive than any Hollywood product since the ``Godfather'' movies. But the atmosphere of comic decadence is a bit too smug, and the gallows humor is a bit too calculated, to coax a full three cheers from me.

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