Energetic, Colorful `Slaves of New York'. FILM: REVIEW

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`SLAVES OF NEW YORK'' is the second movie of the season to offer multiple views of Manhattan life. Unlike the snappy ``New York Stories'' that arrived recently, ``Slaves of New York'' is directed by a single filmmaker and has a fairly consistent point of view on the Big Apple and its inhabitants. What both movies share is a lot of energy, an overabundance of color, and a conviction that no single plot - and no single collection of characters - could do justice to the wildest and wooliest of American cities. The action in ``Slaves of New York'' swirls around many places and people, but its focal point is lower Manhattan and its heroine is a woman named Eleanor, played by Bernadette Peters in a wacky yet wonderfully sustained performance. A denizen of the downtown arts community, Eleanor is surrounded by eccentrics and outright weirdos, from her boyfriend (a sort of respectable graffiti artist) to a platoon of friends, acquaintances, and hangers-on who occupy her world as permanently as the lofts and galleries where they all hang out.

What's different about Eleanor is that she sees beyond her immediate surroundings. Unlike her friends, she's aware of being a ``slave'' to all kinds of dubious habits and behaviors, many of them imposed on her by other people's expectations. More important, she aspires to higher things: finding a sense of purpose, achieving a steady ``relationship'' with someone she loves, and becoming a contented middle-class person. This mystifies her friends, who regard ``middle-class'' as a cussword - even though they're up to their necks (unwittingly) in their own weird variations on middle-class values.

Although the narrative centers on Eleanor and her difficulties, ``Slaves of New York'' is anything but a case history of one discontented woman. Every time you get a firm grasp on the story, it takes off in a new direction, following the adventures of some other downtowner facing difficulties with money, living space, artistic recognition, or perhaps a ``significant other'' who's not being attentive enough. The movie seems to fly apart at times, splitting the story into bits and pieces that compete for attention on different parts of the screen - as if a linear plot couldn't hope to contain so many people, places, and problems. And probably it couldn't, if only because the characters of ``Slaves'' have such astonishingly crowded lives: their homes crowded with junk, their bodies crowded with clothing, their hearts and minds crowded with petty ideas and endlessly conflicting emotions.

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`SLAVES OF NEW YORK'' was directed by James Ivory, who's best known for old-school entertainments like ``A Room With a View'' and ``The Bostonians,'' among others. He does a surprisingly deft job of motion-picturizing Tama Janowitz's antic screenplay, and part of the secret is his good-natured willingness to treat lower Manhattan as if it were as foreign to his own Pacific Coast background as the locations in India that have graced some of his most popular films. His approach to New York isn't noticeably suave, hip, or possessive. Instead it's bemused, amused, and sometimes amazed. Ditto for the cinematography by Tony Pierce-Roberts, who collaborated with Mr. Ivory on ``A Room With a View'' and outdoes himself here, filling the screen with goggle-eyed motion and color.

In addition to Ms. Peters, the cast of ``Slaves'' includes an impressive assortment of performers who seem to be having a ball with their mostly manic characters. If you remember Madeleine Potter from ``The Bostonians,'' you'll hardly recognize her as Daria, one of the downtown crowd's most ambitious (and man-hungry) members. Mary Beth Hurt is close to perfect as a trendy gallery owner; John Harkins is equally on-target as her wealthiest art-collecting pigeon; Steve Buscemi, a talented Off-Off-Broadway actor in real life, shines in the small role of a small-time clothing entrepreneur. And that's just mentioning a few.

Ms. Janowitz's screenplay is sometimes overwritten - there are times when the dialogue sounds cleverly concocted instead of freely spoken - but it has the ring of truth often enough to glide past its own artsy spots. The movie was produced by longtime Ivory associate Ismail Merchant in partnership with Gary Hendler; it was edited by Katherine Wenning. Its rating is R, reflecting some vulgar language and a small amount of on-screen sex.

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