BOSTON — Hugh Grant once told an interviewer that his acting range is "sinisterly narrow." While that's refreshingly candid, it must be added that he's an extraordinarily likable performer as long as he's within that narrow range.
The trick for filmmakers is to find new ways of exploiting his charm - giving center stage to his reliable bag of tricks, while surrounding him with new sets of characters, situations, and plot twists.
The gimmick behind "Mickey Blue Eyes" is one of the wilder stabs at pulling this off. Grant plays his usual sort of character: mild-mannered art auctioneer Michael, who leads a usual sort of life, plying his trade and wooing the woman of his dreams (Jeanne Tripplehorn). Trouble starts when she inexplicably turns down what ought to be his irresistible marriage proposal.
This induces Michael to meet her relatives, who turn out to be a family in the darker sense of that word: a "Godfather" clan, with racketeers, loan sharks, and hit men. No respectable person would marry such a mob, but respectability may grow shaky when the heart asserts itself. Discovering that his girlfriend hates the family's nefarious activities, Michael vows that they'll never get involved with the Mafioso branch of the family - a promise more easily made than kept, as they discover when their wedding draws near.
As Grant waltzes through this farce, his handsome face sports its lopsided smile at every opportunity; his hair flops gracefully as he trots down a Manhattan sidewalk; and his British accent provides for some hilarious spoofs of Hollywood gangster-speak. The rest of the cast is just as entertaining, from Tripplehorn's smart fiance - her exotic looks make a beguiling contrast with Grant's dimply demeanor - to James Caan's effortless performance as the gun-toting father of the bride.
Moviegoers tired of ethnic humor will find plenty to complain about in "Mickey Blue Eyes," which builds its story on the gulf between Grant's smooth Englishness and the Italian-American stereotypes - Burt Young's snarling patriarch, Joe Viterelli's pudgy henchman, and so on - that share the screen with him. The movie clearly takes its major cues from the "Godfather" trilogy: Even the advertising tag ("A romantic comedy you can't refuse") is a "Godfather" knockoff, and Caan's portrayal evokes fond memories of the saga's first episode.
This doesn't mean "Mickey Blue Eyes" will ever become a classic, with its uneven humor, sometimes heavy-handed visual style, and occasional echoes of "The Freshman," which twitted the Mafioso genre more imaginatively. It has some highly amusing moments, though, and Grant fans will be gratified by his presence in almost every scene. It's not the worst movie prospect in this slow pre-Labor Day season.
*Rated PG-13; contains vulgar dialogue and a little violence.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society