Slapstick -- and substance -- in an irreverent story. Also, `It Don't pay . . .,' a modest new 16 mm film offers strong performances and audience fun

It was the best of taste, it was the worst of taste. . . . ``Micki & Maude'' is the strongest movie so far this season, but to appreciate its virtues you have to dig beneath the surface a little. The first thing to get past is a technical snag: Wandering dialogue and a draggy pace weigh down the first half-hour. Not often is a finely crafted comedy so slow out of the starting gate.

And then there's the subject of the story, which has Dudley Moore married to two women -- both expecting his child -- at once. Bigamy and pregnancy are not usually the stuff of Hollywood farce, even under the banner of the new PG-13 rating.

What redeems ``Micki & Maude'' from its bad-taste problem is the good taste of its humanity and compassion, which run steadily through its zany episodes. The characters stumble into their misguided adventures because they love one another so much they lose their bearings -- which doesn't make them heroes, but marks a refreshing change from the callow approach to ``relationships'' found in so many movies. It's a pleasure to hear the sentiments on family life spoken by Anne Reinking when her character decides a spouse and child are more important than a skyrocketing career. And even the foolish protagonist gets into his bigamous bind through too much zeal for those proudly old-fashioned institutions, marriage and parenting.

Less old-fashoned but equally welcome is the movie's hearty dislike for gender stereotypes. The men find nothing more fulfilling than looking after kids and fixing up the house; the women are first-class professionals in challenging fields.

Family life in ``Micki & Maude'' holds no traps -- no ``woman's place is in the home'' or ``a man must be a breadwinner'' to mold or confine either spouse.

All told, this adds up to a lot of substance for a comedy that culminates in maternity-ward slapstick. Its irreverence may put off some viewers, and its plot isn't always credible, but its basic values are solid. Credit goes to screenwriter Jonathan Reynolds and even more to director Blake Edwards, whose filmmaking (after that halting introduction) is fluid and stylish even in the more prosaic interludes.

The excellent cast includes Amy Irving and, in a supporting role, the inimitable Wallace Shawn. The elegant cinematography is by Harry Stradling.

It's an artist's nightmare. You've spent a year of your life on that novel or sculpture or movie, and just when it's all finished, a mugger grabs it and runs -- without even knowing what it is. That's what happens to the hero of ``It Don't Pay To Be an Honest Citizen,'' a modest new film shot in 16-mm on New York City locations. Described as ``a story of crime and not punishment,'' it dogs the trail of a young filmmaker as he tries to retrieve a precious can of celluloid from the crooked couple that ripped him off. He runs into all kinds of helpers, foes, and advisers.

None of them makes much lasting difference. The ending is cynical, but in a cozy sort of way.

``It Don't Pay'' marks the feature-film debut of director Jacob Burckhardt and features an amiable performance by Reed Bye as the frustrated film-hunter. On view in smaller parts are Bill Rice, who often pops up in fringe productions like this, and counterculture heroes Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, jocularly playing a lawyer and a crime boss, respectively.

While it's not an adventurous film, the action moves along nicely and the performances are fun. Its premi`ere will take place tonightJan. 10 at the Collective for Living Cinema in Manhattan, where it will also be shown Jan. 17, 24, and 31. The collective's new policy of showing an independently produced film every Thursday for a month will continue in February with ``Doomed Love,'' by Andrew Horn, and in March with ``The Communists Are Comfortable (and Three Other Stories),'' by the talented Ken Kobland.

``It Don't Pay'' will also be shown at the Museum of Modern Art on March 25 in the ongoing ``Cineprobe'' series.

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