The slippery space between illusion and fact

John Landis, the director of ``Into the Night,'' likes to make people laugh. Hence the broad comic streak in his career, which ranges from ``Animal House'' and ``The Blues Brothers'' to the recent hit ``Trading Places.'' But his artistic personality has a dark side, too. He sometimes goes for shivers instead of guffaws and increasingly uses violence as an expressive tool.

Straddling both his comic and tragic urges, meanwhile, is a fascination with the slippery space between illusion and reality. The most telling moment in any Landis film may well be in ``An American Werewolf in London,'' when the hero wakes from a nightmare into a horrifying situation -- which turns out to be part of another nightmare. What's real and what's a dream? Only the filmmaker knows for sure.

``Into the Night'' contains plenty of collisions between reality and appearance. They're part of the movie's fabric -- and they seem as natural as can be, since the hero hasn't slept in a long time, and goes through the whole plot feeling either dazed or drowsy.

The best thing about the film is its nighttime atmosphere, providing a dreamlike mood that suits the story's wild twists. If you doubt that Landis wants to put his characters (and us) into a fog, try counting how often things turn out to be different from what they seem -- whether it's a scene on a TV location full of fake walls and phony telephones, or small talk about the heroine being younger and stronger than she looks.

Unfortunately, the story doesn't live up to this carefully concocted setting. It's about a bored and discontented man who wanders to an airport in the middle of the night, where he stumbles on a murder about to happen. Rescuing the near-victim, he finds himself mixed up in a smuggling scheme and runs for his life along with the woman he just saved.

There's nothing wrong with the basic plot, but it's strung out too long and yanked in too many directions. The minor characters (many played by real-life movie directors) are mostly contrived. The screenplay kills off more people than its own logic calls for, and Landis throws himself into the mayhem with queasy glee -- a comedy specialist working overtime to prove his thriller machismo.

And worst of all are the insulting ethnic stereotypes that run through the picture. These soil some potentially fine scenes with crude portrayals that have no place in today's Hollywood, or anywhere else.

Jeff Goldblum is adequate in his first try as a romantic lead, although his cautious underplaying isn't quite in sync with the movie's freewheeling tone. Michelle Pfieffer is just right as the woman in distress. Among the supporting cast, my favorites are Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, who show up in a clip from a vintage ``Frankenstein'' spinoff -- reminding us that laughter and suspense can mingle more easily than most of ``Into the Night'' hints.

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